Archive for the ‘National Parks’ 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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Trolling on Our National Parks

Friday, January 30th, 2015
Trolling on Our National Parks

You can tell when someone is trolling on the Internet; the blatant ridiculousness and idiocy of their comments drip with a consistency similar to that of a mixture of snail slime, snot and pus. And as much as you may want to ignore it, the stench is so strong it is unavoidable. But it is even more problematic when the trolling comes in the form of a “news piece” on Yahoo. The one that drew my attention today is entitled “Our Tax Dollars Pay for What? The Nation’s Worst National Parks” by some confessed know-nothing named Bill Fink.

I say “confessed know-nothing” because the author states at the beginning of the piece that his list of five parks is “based on a minimum of research and a heap of biased analysis.”

Well, unlike Mr. Fink, I have visited four out of the five parks on the list. I have also served as the Artist-in-Residence for two of them. So, I think I am a bit more qualified to discuss whether these parks have any merit as parks. Here is my rebuttal to his drivel.

First, a general rebuttal. It seems that his qualifications for what is deemed a “good” national park are based on the creature comforts, amenities, and median temperature of the park. Comfort, however, is not an organizing principle behind the national park system. The National Park Service Organic Act provides that parks, monuments, and preserves are created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Put simply, parks are created to conserve the natural state of the land and its wildlife in a way that does not disturb that natural state. There is nothing in that guiding law about comforts and amenities.

Next, a park-by-park rebuttal of his “review.”

1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina.

This is the one park on the list that I have not visited, let’s put that out up front. Fink’s key complaint about the park is two-fold: there is a boardwalk that forces you to not walk in the swamp, and if you step off into the swamp, there are venomous snakes. And he complains about the mosquitoes, making up false statistics about a 75% infection rate of the West Nile virus for visitors. I really only have two responses to his “critique.” First, swamps in the south have snakes and mosquitoes. It’s a fact. Anyone who does not consider that when visiting the park is an idiot. Second, the boardwalk is there to keep you out of the swamp. It’s bad for the habitat to have people tromping through it and mucking up the place. Plus, it is easier for people to see the park if they are not struggling through the swamp on foot.

A review of the park’s website reveals there is much more to it than a boardwalk and swamp. It is clearly an incredible birding area, with guided hikes and interpretive materials to learn more about the birds, and even a Christmas bird count. The park also offers incredible canoeing opportunities, but I would suppose that getting into a canoe, possibly getting splashed a little, and having to work hard like paddling is a bit much for Mr. Fink. From what I can tell, there are a variety of incredible outdoor recreation and learning opportunities in the park. If I ever find myself in the deep south, I am going to visit.

2. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Alaska.

I have to work hard to contain myself and restrain the extreme outrage at claiming that this park is one of America’s worst. Here, Mr. Fink clearly does not understand the purpose of parks in general, or this park in particular. Mr. Fink’s complaints are that there are no roads or trails in the park, that it is raw wilderness full of bugs and bears, and that it gets cold in the winter. Mr. Fink claims that there are no roads leading to the park, but that’s not true. You can hike into the park by stepping off the Dalton Highway when north of the village of Wiseman.

Reality check, Mr. Fink – the word “Arctic” is in its title. Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost national park in the system. Cold is a given. And the fact that there are no trails or roads within the park is by design. Seven of its 8.4 million acres are federally-designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. That means no roads, no motorized vehicles, no facilities. It is recognized as the premiere wilderness park in the United States. In his book Alaska’s Brooks Range: The Ultimate Mountains, John Kauffman notes that those deciding on the character of the park “borrowed a karate term to call it a black-belt park.  Not for neophytes, it would be at the ascetic end of a spectrum of national parks in Alaska that would range from the comforts of hotels and cruise ships to the most basic of wilderness survival.”

It also has a raw, inspiring beauty that surpasses most other locations in Alaska. I know because I had the pleasure of serving there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2007. That trip introduced me to the Arctic and a quality of beauty I have never before experienced, and most people will never have the pleasure to know. I have returned to that park for five additional trips since.

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3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Mr. Fink’s assessment of Badlands National Park is that it is a “half-assed Grand Canyon” that is nothing better than a washed out creek bed you might find at home, plus it has lots of rattlesnakes. I feel sorry for people that have so little joy in their life, I really do.

Badlands National Park, established in 1939 as a national monument then as a park in 1978, is a jewel of the Great Plains. Aside from its incredible beauty and accessible wilderness, it is rich with history. The Stronghold Unit in the southern part of the park is co-managed by the Oglala Sioux tribe and was home to many of the Ghost Dance sites in the 1890s, as well as the infamous Wounded Knee massacre. It is also a paleontologist’s dream, with one of the greatest fossil accumulations in the North America. Its intact habitat is home to wild herds of American Bison and the most endangered mammal in the United States, the black-footed ferret. And its unearthly, beautiful landscapes have been featured in films from “Thunderheart” to “Armageddon” and “Starship Troopers.”

I grew up in Rapid City, approximately an hour away from the Badlands. I made numerous trips out to the park for day hikes, camped there later when I was adult, and spent a month there as the Artist-in-Residence in 2009. I have only seen a rattlesnake once. But I have seen lots of Bison, Pronghorn, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, coyote, black-tailed prairie dogs, and an assortment of birds. I’ve seen starry skies so bright and intense that they almost light up the landscape on a moonless night. It is probably one of the best national parks for star gazing, which is why the park offers many programs to highlight the night sky. Its pullouts are designed to maximize the experience of the park for those who don’t leave the road, but it offers rather effortless backcountry hiking and camping opportunities in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. It is also a popular destination for distance bicycling.

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4. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

Apparently, Mr. Fink really has it in for South Dakota. The only identifiable complaint I can see from him for this park is that it lacks stalactites or stalagmites. It’s clear that Mr. Fink is not a geologist, but you really do not have to be one to appreciate that Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world and the fourth largest.

Growing up in the Black Hills where Wind Cave National Park is located, I was surrounded by geological and mineralogical wonders. But it was visiting Wind Cave at an early age that launched a serious passion for geology that has lasted to this day. It also inspired many memories of spelunking in other caves throughout the area. I still remember something that our park ranger guide told us during a guided walk through the cave, that the same acid that formed the caverns can be found in Coca-Cola. There is something magical and mysterious about caves that make them a wonder to explore, regardless of whether they have stalactites or not. And even if the cave doesn’t have stalactites or stalagmites, it has a variety of other Calcite formations like boxwork and popcorn.

Setting aside what goes on below the surface, the land above is also prime habitat and home to wild American Bison, mule deer, and other wildlife. And in a prairie that has been decimated by human development, having some wild habitat, even as small as Wind Cave NP, remains incredibly valuable.

5. Death Valley National Park, California.

Mr. Fink fabricates so much information in this critique that it is hard to wonder what the point was. About the only true statements he offers are that it gets hot (it has the record high heat for the United States) and that it gets bitterly cold at night. Had he ever visited any other high elevation dessert areas, this extreme shifts between hot and cold temperatures would not be a surprise. But, of course, you can avoid the extreme 120-degree heat by not going there in the middle of the summer. Or turn on the air conditioning in your car.

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the Lower 48, straddling the California and Nevada border. It offers a combination of dessert and mountain scenery that is unparalleled in the United States. From the wavy patterns of Zabriskie Point to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the visual compositions are a photographer’s dream. It was certainly worthy of many images created by Ansel Adams. It also offers visual puzzles and wonders, from the salt clusters of the Devil’s Golf Course to the mysterious rolling rocks of the Race Track Playa. And like the Badlands, Death Valley also offers incredible night sky views.

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I have never understood trolling as a concept. It really does not offer anything of value to any dialogue. I suppose the troller gets some perverse pleasure out of getting a rise out of people. But trolling should be left to insignificant things, not something as integral to our national identity that is our national parks. Mr. Fink mocks Ken Burns’ documentary “America’s Best Idea,” which further illustrates how much he simply doesn’t get it. Our national parks should be a thing of national pride and identity, far more than any sport or even the flag itself. It was a bold idea that set us apart from other nations, and continues to today. Our national parks are truly places of refuge, not only for the wildlife that inhabit them, but for their visitors. You won’t see massive poaching of endangered species in our parks like you see in Africa, or forests being burned out of control like they are in Bornea. In a time when increasing budget cuts further threaten the integrity of these national treasures, it is even more egregious to engage in such useless, baseless and thoughtless of a trolling exercise as what Mr. Fink has to offer. Yahoo should be ashamed of itself.

2014: A Review in Pictures

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
2014: A Review in Pictures

I always enjoy a mixture of the new and the familiar in a year of exploring the natural world with my camera. The year 2014 did not disappoint in that regard.

After a robust 2013 of doing fieldwork for my Bristol Bay project, “Where Water is Gold,” I really ramped down my fieldwork in 2014. The funding for my fieldwork was pretty much spent, and I had accomplished most of what I needed to capture this incredibly resource-rich and culturally vibrant region. I passed over 1,500 images off to the book publisher, Braided River, and proceeded to work hard with them on production fundraising. I managed to help secure some $20,000 in funding, nearly half of our production budget. So, I only did one dedicated trip for this project in 2014 – a winter visit to the village of Igiugig, at the headwaters of the Kvichak River on Lake Iliamna. But, there was one moment of happenstance  while strolling Pike Place Market in Seattle in early August – sighting an Ocean Beauty Seafood truck making a fresh delivery of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon to the market. All I had was my iPhone 5, and I managed to capture a shot that completes the story that started with catching the salmon on an Ocean Beauty-affiliated drift boat (the F/V Chulyen) in the summer of 2011. And you bet that even though it is a phone shot, it is going in the book! I also added a little Bristol Bay fieldwork right here in Anchorage by photographing Monica Zappa, the Iditarod rookie musher who set out as part of her ongoing efforts, Mushing to Save Bristol Bay!

It was also another good year for chasing the aurora borealis. While there was no single display that truly matched the awe-inspiring craziness of the St. Patrick’s Day display in 2013, there were many shows that provided exceptional photo opportunities. But I also captured the aurora in more diverse locations than in previous years: Wiseman, Chandlar Shelf, Dalton Highway, Parks Highway, Denali Highway, Kiana, Kotzebue, Denali National Park & Preserve, Hatcher Pass, Turnagain Arm and Portage Valley. Some of those are some of my standard spots, but others were new.

Related to that, I spent some time scouting locations to conduct future aurora borealis tours and workshops. One location I checked was the vicinity of Glennallen, at the junction of the Glenn and Richardson Highways. Another was the vicinity of Wiseman and to the north along the Dalton Highway. From those trips, I have scheduled my first aurora borealis tour, with more to come in 2016. I also scouted the Tutka Bay Lodge for a future summer macro and landscape photo workshop.

Michelle and I also made our biennial trek to the Hawaiian Islands, stopping first on the Island of Hawaii to visit CJ Kale and Nick Selway, and see their new Lava Light Galleries location at the Queen’s Shops at Waikaloa. CJ and Nick were gracious hosts as we explored surf, sunsets and Pele on the Big Island. We also brought them a case of Midnight Sun Brewery flavors, recalling their love for that brewery when they came to visit the previous year. After spending a few days with the Lava Boys, we headed over for a ten-day visit to the Island of Kauai, our new favorite of the islands. We split up our time between the north and south shores, taking in a visit to the Koloa Rummery, doing some aerial tours, snorkeling, hiking, and testing various Mai Tai recipes. (CJ later helped us to make the perfect Mai Tai when he came to visit Alaska later in the year.) An attempt to delve into serious underwater photography was foiled when I dropped my Nikon D800E on its back on the first day of shooting on the Big Island, forcing me to use the camera without the benefit of the LCD.

The other big photo outing in 2014 involved eight days in Denali National Park & Preserve, operating on a Professional Photographer Special Permit to use my own vehicle on the road system. I was joined in the first half of the trip by CJ Kale, and by Nick Selway in the second half of the trip. We were able to see and photograph just about everything you would want to in the park, and more: all five of the “Big Five” animals – wolf, Dall sheep, brown bear, caribou and moose; Denali (Mt. McKinley) at sunrise and at night; marvelous fall colors and aurora borealis deep within the park. The creative freedom offered by being able to drive within the park, at all times of the day, led to some incredible results.

Mixed in there were various visits in locations around Southcentral Alaska and to Olympic National Park, Washington.

Coming up next year … more familiar and some new. I will take advantage of the incredible forecast for the sockeye salmon returns in Bristol Bay (at least 50% greater return than next year) to squeeze in a few more trips out to Bristol Bay for the book. I will return to Wiseman in the spring to scout locations for a future spring workshop, and go there in late August for my aurora borealis photo tour. And for the new – a summer trip to Iceland to start a multi-year project to photograph the circumpolar Arctic.

To see a selection of my top 2014 images, visit my 2014 Year in Review gallery. Here is a teaser of what you will find there.

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Let’s be honest, Park Service

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
Let's be honest, Park Service

When I worked as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) about 20 years ago, I came to realize that the concept of “wilderness” was a subjective one. Everyone experiences wilderness and wildness in different ways, and their perspective of what constitutes wilderness is often connected to noise level. For example, certain border lakes in the BWCAW allow for the operation of 25 hp or less motors (while almost all of the 2,000 or so lakes prohibit any motorized craft). For some people, even that was too much; but for others, 25hp or less meant no jet skis would be disturbing the serenity of a wilderness experience that involved fishing for walleye using a small trolling motor.

So I understand the desire to not have noise disturb the wilderness experience. But there is a right way to regulate that, and a wrong way.

On May 2, 2014, the National Park Service chose the wrong way in Yosemite National Park. We have all seen the increased use of drones to capture images from unique perspectives. I know of at least one professional nature photographer that has been increasingly using it in his landscape work. In response to such increased uses in one of its most-visited parks, the National Park Service issued a directive that any use of drones in Yosemite National Park was illegal. In doing so, the NPS cited to 36 C.F.R. §2.17(a)(3), which prohibits the use of aircraft in national parks for “Delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit.”

Subsequent to Yosemite’s decision, the Director of the National Park Service issued a directive on June 20, 2014 in the form of a policy memorandum, which is not available publicly, that “directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service.” That includes all national parks, monuments, wild and scenic rivers, national seashores, national lakeshores, national historic sites, and others, for a total of 85 million acres and 401 units of Federal public land. In addition to the Yosemite reasons for banning the use of unmanned aircraft, the new system-wide prohibition cited “noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns.” The news release about the new policy cautions that this is a temporary measure until the Park Service can adopt regulations through a formal rule making process that addresses the use of drones in parks.

There are just a few problems with the National Park Service’s rationale to currently prohibit the use of drones. Anyone who knows how drones are used commonly knows that they are not used to deliver a person or an object, as cited in the Yosemite example. You may have someone do a backcountry drop of food supplies for you using a parachute, but you sure as heck wouldn’t using a drone. And if all a drone is doing is flying around or taking pictures, it is not delivering anything unless you can stretch the imagination to suggest that it is “delivering” photos to a compact flash card. But no, the NPS has stretched the imagination even further, claiming it is the “drone itself” that is the object being delivered. Apparently, the NPS thinks the egg can exist without the chicken. If the drone itself is the object being carried, then what is the aircraft carrying it? Perhaps it’s Wonder Woman’s invisible jet?

The agency that actually regulates drones – the Federal Aviation Administration – is split on the use of drones. The FAA lumps all types of unmanned aerial vehicles together under the term “Unmanned Aircraft” or UA (this includes Unmanned Aircraft (UA), a Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA), a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV), and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). The FAA has also has a series of questions and answers governing the use of drones or UAs, as they do not obviously fit into standard aircraft regulations. Current FAA regulations indicate that only two UA models (the Scan Eagle and Aerovironment’s Puma) have been certified for commercial use, and they are only authorized to fly in the Arctic. That means most professional photographers using drones for aerial imagery are breaking the law.

But the FAA does allow for the recreational use of airspace by hobbyists with small, radio-controlled, model aircraft for personal use so long as flights are below 400 feet above the ground and away from airports and air traffic. Thus, if you are a professional photographer, you may not take pictures using a drone under FAA rules, but there is no prohibition to a hobbyist photographer doing the same.  Thus, the FAA does not consider UAs and “aircraft” to be synonymous and subject to the same regulation, further undermining the NPS treatment of them as the same under their regulations. But you don’t have to look to FAA regulations to see that drones and “aircraft” are not the same. All you have to do is look at the Park Service’s own regulations, which define “aircraft” as “a device that is used or intended to be used for human flight in the air, including powerless flight.” See 36 C.F.R. §1.4(a).

But if you look at the full rationale behind Yosemite’s drone prohibition, and the new system-wide directive issued on June 20, you get back to the concept of spoiling the wilderness experience. You also possibly find a legal basis for the NPS to exclude the use of drones within any national park: The park has experienced an increase in visitors using drones within park boundaries over the last few years. Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops, and filming aerial footage of the park. Drones can be extremely noisy, and can impact the natural soundscape. Drones can also impact the wilderness experience for other visitors creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel…  Additionally, drones can have negative impacts on wildlife nearby the area of use, especially sensitive nesting peregrine falcons on cliff walls. 

There are regulations in place already that address a noise nuisance impairing the use and enjoyment of the park by visitors. Under 36 C.F.R. §2.12, the Park Service presently prohibits “[o]perating motorized equipment or machinery” that “exceeds a noise level of 60 decibels measured on the A-weighted scale of 50 feet” or, if lower than that, “makes noise which is unreasonable, considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct, location, time of day or night, purpose for which the area was established, impact on park users, and other factors that would govern the conduct of a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances.” Drones are reputed to be loud, so either provision could prohibit their use around other people. But if the goal is to prohibit the use of drones so that it does not disturb the wilderness experience of other visitors, then someone could still use a drone so long as they are in a location where no other people are present under this regulation. This provision could not serve as the basis for an absolute prohibition. It also shows that there are currently regulations on the books that address the use of drones, so the current excuse to have a temporary ban in order to have time to craft new regulations is erroneous.

Yet relying on the provision that actually legally applies creates more work for the NPS. I can easily tell you that they probably looked at Section 2.12 and concluded not to push that provision to manage use of drones because it would be difficult to enforce. For the same reason that I stated that the concept of a wilderness experience is subjective, so too is what constitutes “unreasonable” noise “under the circumstances.” One little mosquito of a drone dwarfs in comparison to the white noise of background traffic for the 3.7 million visitors that Yosemite received in 2013. Mount Rushmore, which is cited in the June 20 news release for the new system-wide policy, enjoyed over 2 million visitors in 2012 and sits next to the major roadway through that portion of the Black Hills. Certainly that much traffic noise would be unreasonable to a person’s park experience. Or how about that annoying gaggle of children yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs for the entire length of a hike – certainly that would be unreasonable to some person’s enjoyment of the park. If the park really wanted to reduce the impact on the park experience by noise, it would cut down on vehicular traffic. But, obviously it lacks the fortitude to do that so it goes for the easier picking – drones.

The June 20 news release also cites as justification for the absolute ban a single incident of wildlife harassment due to drone activity. The incident involved a drone in Zion National Park that allegedly caused some youth to separate from adult Bighorn Sheep in the spring. According to local reporting, a Park Service volunteer confronted the drone operator and warned them of the potential consequences for harassment, but there was no mention in the article of a citation issued. Under 36 C.F.R. §2.2(a)(2), it is prohibited to engage in the “feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentional disturbing of wildlife nesting, breeding or other activities.” This is a very broad prohibition, and covers any activity that would lead to frightening or disturbing wildlife. If someone frightens or disturbs wildlife using a drone, the Park Service currently has the tools in regulation to engage in an enforcement action. There is no need to develop new regulations. 

So, Yosemite’s claim that drones somehow fit into regulations related to “delivering or retrieving a person or object” is completely baseless. The broader National Park Service concerns about drones causing noise disturbances is covered by existing regulations related to noise caused by mechanized objects. Concerns over drones harassing wildlife are covered by existing regulations. There is nothing that drones do that is not already covered by regulations. There is nothing in those regulations that would prevent a person from using a drone in a park if (1) they operated nowhere near anyone else to cause a noise disturbance or (2) nowhere near wildlife to cause any harassment. The Park Service simply has realized that applying those existing regulations to drones creates enforcement challenges that they don’t want to face. Saying “no” to drones is an easy bright line and easy to enforce. But it’s not an honest interpretation or application of existing regulations, and it’s not a good excuse to take a “time out” to create new regulations that are not needed.

For some of my photographs taken on the ground in national parks or from legally-operated manned aircraft, check out my National Parks collection.

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!

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.

At the Coray Homestead

Thursday, August 15th, 2013
At the Coray Homestead

It’s a windy but relatively hot Saturday afternoon, and I am resting in a small lounge area in the dining hall at The Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.  The lodge consists of a main building with dining hall and several cabins of lovely wood construction. I am relaxing after yet another delicious meal. As the ladies in the commercial kitchen prepare for the evening meal, the constant drone of Christian music can be heard coming from the radio (presumably an iPod). While Port Alsworth is a generally religious, small community on the shores of Lake Clark in the preserve unit of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, this part of the community is particularly religious. After spending a day here following a weeklong backcountry trip in the Twin Lakes area of the park, I have come to get a taste of what a religious commune must feel like. Every meal is prefaced by a prayer. Everyone is really friendly in that mildly something’s-not-right kind of way, and everyone looks related to one another.  The largest building in the community is the church (except for the airplane hangar at one of the community’s two airstrips). Lake Clark Air, owned and operated by the same family that owns the lodge, discourages its customers from using their aircraft to transport alcohol.  And no alcohol is allowed in the dining hall.

I am waiting for the arrival of Steve Kahn, who is on his way via boat from the homestead he shares with his wife, Anne Coray. Steve is the author of “The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt.” Anne is a poet, and has published a few collections of her works, including “Bone Strings.” Together, they wrote the text for Alaska Geographic’s “Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.” While a float plane ride with Lake Clark Air would be the faster way to the homestead, they are not flying due to high winds on the lake. As the afternoon progresses, the winds die down quite a bit but Lake Clark Air still refuses to fly.  At one point, I hear a knock and a “Hello?” coming from inside the kitchen.  The ladies have long since finished their kitchen tasks and left the dining hall. I get up, go to the kitchen, and meet Steve face-to-face for the first time. Wearing a leather hat, bushy mustache and gear designed to protect the body from wind and rain, Steve is the kind of person you instantly feel comfortable around, like you have known him for years.  We gather up my gear and head down to his 18-foot Lund to load up and head out onto the lake.

Normally about a half hour ride, the stiff winds and frequent gusts, along with rolling, shifting swells, makes for a nearly hour long boat ride, interrupted frequently by jaw-jarring slamming of the boat’s keel against rising swells. Despite the nature of the ride, it is hard to avoid or miss the stark, raw beauty of the Lake Clark shoreline and surrounding mountains. We eventually make it to the shelter of the bay where Steve and Anne’s homestead is located.

Built in the early 1950s, the homestead sits on the western shore of Lake Clark, a short boat ride from the top of the lake, a frequent rally point for small aircraft traveling from Anchorage into the region. The youngest of four children when she was born, Anne joined this world in a small, one-room log cabin on the property in 1958.  I would have the pleasure of sleeping in that cabin during my three-night visit. That cabin has been joined by three other structures: Ann and Steve’s cabin, another cabin belonging to Anne’s brother Craig and his wife, who spend their summers at the cabin, and a third cabin in progress belonging to Anne’s brother David.

As the Van Halen song says, “I found the simple life ain’t so simple.” During my visit, Anne and Steve note that people who think that living off the grid in a wilderness homestead is something to do in their retirement years simply don’t understand the amount of work necessary to make it happen. After spending a few days with them and getting a taste of the lifestyle, I come to get a sense of how time consuming and physically tasking the lifestyle can be.

In order to build their cabin, Ann and Steve had to have the lumber shipped in from Anchorage.  While it was originally supposed to come by barge, due to a series of events shaped by weather and incompetence, they had to cart the wood from Port Alsworth to their homestead via dozens of trips back and forth in the Lund boat. Their cabin is heated by wood burning stove, which requires an abundant supply of firewood – firewood that must be cut, split, hauled, and stacked. For electricity, they use solar panels to generate power, but use it sparingly, only powering a marine radio (that is rarely used), a computer and the Internet (which are fired up only a couple of times a day), and the occasional bouts of music.  One evening we listened to a variety of Tom Waits selections while drinking their marvelous home-brewed beer. They do not use a washer or dryer (all laundry is done by hand), refrigerator (they use the nearby creek), or freezer for food (everything that is perishable that needs to be stored longterm is canned).  For ice, they have constructed a large wooden box filled with sawdust, harvesting ice from the lake in the winter using a chainsaw to cut large blocks for burial in the sawdust.  Then, to enjoy a G&T in the summer, you just push aside the sawdust, chip off some ice, and toss it in your glass.

In order to get fresh produce, Steve and Anne grow their own in an open garden and a greenhouse.  Strawberries, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, brocolli, bell peppers, and tomatoes are among the crops they grow, protected by fencing, webbing, and electrified wiring in order to keep out snowshoe hares, moose and bears.  For a garden fertilizer, they collect the carcasses of spawned-out salmon on the shores of Lake Clark in October and bury them whole in the rows where seeds will be planted in the following season. They also harvest wild edible plants, like “beach onion” or “wild chive,” which they preserve by soaking in olive oil and canning it, as well as an assortment of roots and berries that grow nearby.

Most of their protein also comes from the land. Lake Clark is fed by one of the richest sockeye salmon runs in the world.  Starting out in Bristol Bay, the sockeye swim up the Kvichak River into Lake Iliamna, then up the Newhalen River into Sixmile Lake, and then a short stream connecting to Lake Clark. By mid-July, their beaches will feature set nets extended out from shore anchors down the beach away from the cabin. Sockeye, already starting to undergo the metamorphasis of shining, silver ocean fish to reddish with green head spawning fish, will be slamming into gill nets, cutting short their thousands of miles of travel to spawn. These salmon will become the primary protein source for Anne and Steve, and dozens of other homestead residents on the lake, for most of the coming year. It is their concerns over adverse impacts to this primary food source that leads their opposition to the development of the proposed Pebble Mine.

But that is not all of the bounty that this wild land has to offer for Anne and Steve.  During my visit, they catch lunch and dinner using rod and reel for Arctic char and a floating hook and line “set” for lake trout.  In the winter, they can fish for those and other fish.  And then, about once every three years or so, they will hunt for moose – an animal large enough to provide them sufficient red meat to last for several years.

Not being familiar with this way of life, one may wonder, “What do you guys do out there?” This is a common question for Anne and Steve, who see their remote, wilderness home as a source of constant inspiration for their writing. But the daily tasks of simply providing for food and fuel can dominate the day and sometimes take away from time for writing. And then there are construction and rennovation projects. Dave’s cabin is slowly being built over the years. Steve and Anne have been working on restoring old, nearby cabins belonging to prior homesteaders. Nearby homesteaders, like their closest neighbor Bella Hammond, sometimes need some assistance.  Bella is, after all, in her 80s and still living mostly by herself at the homestead she built with her husband, former (and beloved) Alaska Governor Jay Hammond.

While the homestead life may not be for everyone, it is hard to not be inspired by their ingenuity, the products of their labor, and their connection with a land that so many have forgotten. After visiting with them for a few days, I vowed to come back for another visit; then not as a photographer documenting a book, but just as a visitor. I also became inspired to make more of my own 1.26 acres on the Anchorage hillside, envisioning how to turn a large patch of alder into a garden someday, expanding what Michelle and I have already begun doing with our greenhouse.

Being Real with National Park Visitation Numbers

Thursday, August 8th, 2013
Being Real with National Park Visitation Numbers

I read an article in Parade today entitled, “6 Great National Parks You’ve Never Visted.” Of course, I expected to see some of Alaska’s lest-known and less-traveled parks in there.  Take for example, Kobuk Valley National Park, home of the Kobuk Sand Dunes – yes, sand dunes in Alaska! According to the National Park Service, Kobuk Valley NP received anywhere between 230 to 6,309 visitors from 1982 until 2010.  Since 2010, it has experienced an inexplicable jump in visitorship – up to as many as 29,550 in 2012.  The number of park visitors to Kobuk Valley NP since 1982 totals 124,280, for an average of 4,009 visitors annually. And then there is my personal favorite, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, the second-largest national park in the country, and has the most land designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of any park.  Straddling the massive Brooks Range, it is a true gem of the National Park System.  But yet, its remote location does not lend itself to a high level of visitation. It has received as few as 822 visitors in 1989 and a maximum of 11,397 in 2008, for a total of 181,340 visitors since 1982 (an average of 5,849 visitors annually).

Not only were these two national parks not mentioned in the Parade magazine online article, but NO Alaska national park made the list.  What parks were on the list you might ask? With one exception, they were all national parks accessible by a road system and had annual visitations that mostly exceed the total number of visitors that have ventured into these remote Alaskan parks. Only one national park in the article had numbers approaching those in Alaska, and that is because it, too, is rather remote. Isle Royale National Park, inexplicably part of Michigan even though it is much closer to Minnesota, is only accessible by ferry or plane. But yet, it receives considerably higher visitation than these Alaska parks.  Since 1980, Isle Royale’s lowest visitation year received 11,814 visitors but 31,760 in its highest year, for a total of 649,218 visitors and an average annual visitation of 19,673 during that time period. The other parks menioned in the article include:

So, be honest, if you are going to publish an article talking about great national parks that have hardly been visited, you need to include Alaska in the discussion and not include parks that receive over 1 million visitors annually. Even Alaska’s most-visited park, Denali National Park & Preserve, has far fewer annual visitors than Haleakala NP.  Since 1980, Denali has had a total of 13,858,769 visitors for an annual average of 419,963 visitors. But, having the national media ignore Alaska is something we are accustomed to. In 2004, when 6.5 million acres burned in wildfires in Alaska, it earned hardly a whisper on the national stage. On the same recent weekend a Boeing 777 crashed in San Fransisco, killing 2 people, we had a plane crash in Alaska that killed 10 – including two whole families.  The San Fransisco crash, with far fewer fatalities, earned constant national media attention, while the Soldotna crash was barely mentioned nationally. We have people go missing or get killed all the time in outdoor mishaps, and it hardly gets mentioned on the national stage.  But when someone goes missing on a day hike in Mt. Rainier National Park, it’s all a buzz. Funny how the nation’s largest state often gets missed.

But back to the Parade article. The point of the piece was that while parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smoky Mountain are great, they come with crowds.  Perhaps another approach would be to publish an article about great parks to visit in the winter in order to avoid crowds.  Hmm, I think that’s a great idea …

Our National Parks help create our personal stories

Friday, April 26th, 2013
Our National Parks help create our personal stories

At the end of National Parks Week, when I have spent my busy week occupied with other thoughts, I had to force myself to slow down and think of how our National Park System has influenced my life over the years.  This is something we should all do from time to time, because it is likely we can all find a thread that the parks have woven through our personal fabric over the years.

The first unit of our National Park System I visited was Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, about a decade before Steven Spielberg made it famous in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  Of course, I don’t remember the visit; I was still in diapers.  But my parents took photos to commemorate the occasion.  Fortunately, I was an infant long before the digital camera boom so many potentially embarassing occurrences from my childhood were either miniminally documented or not at all.  Except for that incident with the cat food.

The first national parks I remember visiting were those situated within an hour or so of my home town of Rapid City, South Dakota: Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park. In my youth, I was fascinated with rocks and geology, so these parks were such a wonder and treat to visit, from learning about the long process of forming caverns and stalagtites (I still remember the park ranger at Wind Cave NP telling us they were formed by the same acid found in Coca Cola), or the layers and weathering the created the brilliant formations of the Badlands and revealed their paleontological treasures.  And while out exploring the southern Black Hills, scouring old mines for pegmatite phosphates, garnet, and other rock hounding wonders, it was a treat to have the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln watching from a distance (several tunnels through the rocks on the road system were cut to point at Mount Rushmore).

Some of my earliest adventures as a youth or as a young man after my Navy service and college were in our national parks.  While in the Badlands as a youth, I went on one of my first solo hikes into a wilderness area and faced my first rattlesnake in the wild. Contrary to the normal reaction to such a creature, I tried to coax it out of its hiding place in a large crack in the ground. After college, I went on my first backpacking trip in Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, learning the hard way about things like breaking in hiking boots and overloading packs. But I was also introduced to the wonders of mole skin, too, and that’s a good thing.

While merely a place to explore and recreate in my earlier years, I have added an element of enjoyment to our national parks as a full adult: photography.  Somewhere in my late twenties and early thirties, I transitioned from hobbyist to serious photographer.  While my early years in the Navy and in college trained me more to be a photojournalist, my experience as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota compelled me to embrace nature photography.  And given the wonders of our national park units, they became a perfect venue for me to develop and grow as a nature photographer, while I also grew as a human being.

Two early trips through our national parks during this transitional period stand out, and both of them were with my friend Andrew VonBank of Minnesota.  The first, originating from the Twin Cities where we both lived at the time, included Theodore Roosevelt National Park (ND), Yellowstone National Park (WY), Grand Teton National Park (WY), Devil’s Tower (WY) and Badlands National Park (SD).  At that time, I was shooting a Nikon F100, and mixing negative and slide film.  By our next trip two years later, I had switched to using completely slide film (a major step in becoming a much better photographer), and I had been shooting much more after my move to Alaska. We met in Las Vegas, and, in the span of only two weeks, visited six national park units in Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Canyonlands, and Arches) and the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (AZ).  And between these two trips, along with my time in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve, I started to realize that I was truly seeing the world differently. I was looking beyond the things that people tpyically stopped to photograph, and learning to see and experience wild places in a more complete and holistic way. But the trips were so whirlwind, so superficial given the vastness of the landscapes before me.

And then I discovered the Artist-in-Residence program in the National Park Service.  Administered in nearly 50 units in the system, the AIR program allows an artist to be immersed in the park, explore the landscape at their own leisure, and practice his or her art. In exchange, the artist provides two public presentations at the park during the residency and donates a piece of art either created during the residency or inspired by the residency within one year of completion of the residency.  The park provides the artist a place to stay, and in some cases, a nominal stipend for food and expenses.

Starting locally, I applied for and was accepted to serve as the Artist-in-Residence for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve – the first photographer selected for the position. I spent five days in the Arctic tundra above the treeline, exploring a wide landscape and watching hundreds of caribou migrate through a valley, followed by seven days floating on the Alatna River.  I learned to slow down more, listen, smell and envision a landscape in ways I had never before imagined.  It was my first backcountry trip in the Alaskan wilderness, my first time above the Arctic Circle, my first time in Alaska’s largest mountain range, the Brooks Range. Two years later, I served as the AIR for Rocky Mountain National Park and Badlands National Park – a special treat, allowing me to go back and explore the landscape of my youth as both a photographer and an older adult.

Now, because of my life experiences and my visual approach as a photographer, visiting national parks is a very personal experience. I have developed what I feel are intimate connections with a vast land that, while our world changes and contorts all around us, have remained steadfast in their ability to provide me solace, wonder, inspiration and childlike delight. Visiting the more-often visited parks presents special challenges as an artist because I don’t want to repeat what’s been done before, but that’s a good thing.  My national parks still help me to grow and develop as a person.

So, I challenge you to think back on your life, remember the various national park units you have visited, and think about how those have shaped your life.  And if you have not already, you must watch Ken Burns’ documentary, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”  It took me a while to think of all the parks I have been to (see list below).  What parks have you visited?

  • Lincoln Memorial, D.C.
  • National Mall, D.C.
  • Washington Monument, D.C.
  • National World War II Memorial, D.C.
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial, D.C.
  • Korean War Veterans Memorial, D.C.
  • Great Smoky Mountain National Park, NC & TN
  • Isle Royale National Park, MI
  • Pipestone National Monument, MN
  • Teddy Roosevelt National Park, ND
  • Badlands National Park, SD
  • Wind Cave National Park, SD
  • Jewel Cave National Monument, SD
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial, SD
  • Devil’s Tower National Park, WY
  • Yellowstone National Park, WY
  • Grand Teton National Park, WY
  • Glacier National Park, MT
  • Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, CO
  • Arches National Park, UT
  • Canyonlands National Park, UT
  • Capitol Reef National Park, UT
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
  • Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
  • Zion National Park, UT
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, UT
  • Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
  • Natural Bridges National Monument, AZ
  • White Sands National Monument, NM
  • Death Valley National Park, CA
  • Joshua Tree National Park, CA
  • Muir Woods National Monument, CA
  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA
  • Mount Rainier National Park, WA
  • Olympic National Park, WA
  • Sitka National Historic Park, AK
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, AK
  • Kenai Fjords National Park, AK
  • Katmai National Park & Preserve, AK
  • Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, AK
  • Denali National Park & Preserve, AK
  • Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, AK
  • Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, HI
  • Haleakala National Park, HI

It’s impossible to state what are my favorite national parks or images captured in them, so here is a random sample, showing the wonder and diversity that they can bring to us.  For a more complete selection, visit my National Parks gallery.

A couple days in Death Valley

Saturday, December 29th, 2012
A couple days in Death Valley

It is the largest national park in the Lower 48 of the United States, as well as the lowest, hottest and driest point in the United States.  Originally envisioned as a mining mecca, various mining operations quickly learned that it was not very profitable.  Instead, entrepreneurs focused their efforts on the economic opportunity of tourism.  Death Valley National Monument was established in 1933.  It was expanded and established as a national park in 1994.

I have been to the desert Southwest in various locations, but have never been able to make it out to Death Valley National Park.  Given its proximity to Las Vegas (only a two-hour drive), it seemed like a perfect place to start our Southwest road trip – after spending a couple of days exploring photo galleries on the Vegas Strip and enjoying the spa services at our hotel.  I was aware of a couple of choice photo locations – Zabrieske Point, the Mesquite Sand Dunes and the Racetrack Playa.  I certainly wanted to examine those and see how I might interpret them, but also wanted to do some broader exploring in the park.

I found the open flats of the park the most interesting area to explore that has been under-explored.  Take, for example, the Devil’s Golf Course.  Perhaps, the better name for it would have been Golf Course from Hell, as in, this is what a golf course would look like in Hell.  It is a massive field of large clusters of salt crystals, creating a bumpy field of sharp salty boulders.  Given how “good” light doesn’t hit the main part of the valley floor at this time of year, I chose to photograph the field after sunset, with the colors of dusk to add an interesting element to the scene.  I also, after coming back one morning from the sand dunes, saw open water out on the salt flats, providing a perfect reflection of the mountains of the Panamint Range as morning light struck them.  A scattered field of clouds added additional elements of interest.  I also found the Devil’s Corn Field (just a couple of miles away from the parking for the Mesquite Sand Dunes) a really strong, potential subject, but the light and timing just didn’t work out.  Next time.

Michelle and I also visited the Ryollite ghost town, just outside of the park, which provided an interesting change to the usual scenery.  On the way back into the park, we came down through the area where Scotty’s Castle is located.  While the castle itself was not particularly interesting, its location was – a water-rich drainage replete with several groves of California palm trees and a variety of plants and trees.  A true oasis, it will be worthy to explore again at another time of the year – spring.

The drive out to the Racetrack Playa is certainly worth it, even if it is an hour and a half of driving on rocky, narrow road.  The Racetrack is a mysterious location where rocks are moved across a dried lake bed when the conditions are right, leaving behind dragged trail marks.  Fun to explore and photograph, there is one downfall to the location – there are no toilet facilities of any kind.  As you photograph the rocks and their background scenery, you know that you will have to clone out people in the background when you process in Photoshop.  In one case, I had the image blown up to 100% and was cloning out a couple of people when I noticed that one of them was taking a leak.  Chuckling to myself, I removed his activity and presence from the image.

When we left the park, we headed west out on Highway 190.  I found the western, higher part of the park fascinating; almost like a desert Scottish Highlands.  But, since we were on a mission to visit Galen Rowel’s gallery in Bishop on our way up to Mono Lake, there was no time to stop.  I enjoyed what I was able to capture, and took notes for future return trips to the park.