Archive for the ‘National Parks’ Category

The lynx hunt

Monday, May 7th, 2012
The lynx hunt

It all started with some caribou.  It was our first morning in Denali National Park & Preserve – I was there with fellow photographers Chris Beck and Matthew Brown.  We had overslept because someone who was in charge of the morning alarm thought he would sleep in for another five minutes, which turned out to be nearly an hour and a half.  We gathered our senses and headed into the park.  Somewhere about halfway between the park entrance from the Parks Highway and Savage River, we saw another vehicle pulled over, and a photographer out of his vehicle.  Sure sign that there was wildlife afoot.

We saw quickly he had focused on three caribou that were grazing in rocky wash, downhill and to the south of the road.  I captured a few images, but was really waiting for the caribou to do something other than grazing.  Heads up, perhaps profile shots, even better looking toward the cameras, but not as much grazing and certainly not the classic “butt shot.”  Then, Chris’s rather intensive whispering and gesturing got my attention, and I looked ahead of me on the road to see an adult lynx, just sitting upright, taking in the morning’s events.  He was maybe about a hundred yards down the road from us.

I quickly ignored the caribou and turned my 500mm toward the lynx.  Slowly, the other photographers started to follow suit, and then it was just a bunch of shutter clicks and mirror slaps as we all captured this beautiful animal, just sitting there without a care in the world.  Then, something got his attention, and he went into stalking mode – something I have seen my own cats do on countless occasions.  I could not see what he was after, but he was focused, on a mission, ignoring the world around him.  Once the lynx got a little more than halfway across the road, he just … stopped.  Then he dropped to a crouch, and just sat; watching, waiting.  I saw what had drawn his attention, the thing that is top of the menu for lynx in Alaska – a snowshoe hare.  Nibbling on some willows on the edge of the road, this hare was completely oblivious to the photographers, the caribou, and the lynx that had its sights on a morning meal.

As the lynx waited, Chris, Matt and I worked to get closer, closer and yet closer to the lynx and hare.  We would move twenty feet, then stop and wait, capturing a few more images.  Then we would get up, move closer and stop.  Neither the hare nor the lynx noticed or cared.  Then, from behind us came what seemed like a cacophonous electronic squeal – the other photographer ( we came to call him “DB” for the rest of the trip) had opened his car door with the key in the ignition, letting out the “your key’s in the ignition and your door is open STUPID” warning sound that we all know so well.  But never had I ever heard it seem so loud before, nor had it ever had such adverse consequences.

Immediately, the hare started, stood up, realized it was in peril and ran into the thick of the willows, spruce and alder that lay just feet beyond the road.  Disappointed, the lynx got up, crept toward the edge of the willows where the hare had disappeared, and then lept into the thick of it, hoping to still have some success with his hunt.  One minute we were all waiting with the lynx for the expectation of the hunt, elated to be in the position to watch such a dramatic natural event, and then, because of the complete cluelessness of another photographer who had captured the images he wanted, it was over.

As much as we lamented the loss of the kill, it was hard to be disappointed for the opportunity to watch and photograph the lynx in action.  And it likely would not have happened had we got out of bed on time.

Weekend in Denali

Saturday, May 5th, 2012
Weekend in Denali

Aside from the wonderful opportunity to watch and photograph a lynx while it hunted a snowshoe hare, my spring weekend in Denali National Park & Preserve with fellow photographers Chris Beck, Matt Brown and Brian Weeks presented a wonderful variety of photo opportunities.  It is almost impossible to spend just a couple of days in the park and not come away with something. 

During the regular season, park visitors are only allowed to drive their vehicles into the park to the Savage River, at mile 15 of the park road.  But, on the shoulder seasons, the road is open all the way to the Teklanika River rest stop, at mile 29.  This presents a great opportunity to capture nature as it is waking up from winter.  Even during the transition from winter to summer, and with light that was less than ideal, we had plenty of encounters with caribou, hares, porcupine and Willow ptarmigan and several unique glimpses of the land that only occur during a period of a few weeks.  And even though the full “super moon” stayed behind the clouds, it still created a golden rim of light around those clouds to give us pixel food for thought. 

It was also the first time I took my new Nikon D800E out into the field.  I was very pleased with the results, particularly in high dynamic range scenes.  It was also the first time I had the opportunity to use my new Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 AFS lens, which came in handy on several wide open landscape scenes. 





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.

The risks our rangers take

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
The risks our rangers take

In August of 2007, I was camped at the confluence of the Malamute Fork and the Alatna River, waiting for a National Park Service plane to pick me and my NPS Ranger companion, Tracy Pendergrast, up from a 12-day backcountry trip as part of my Artist-in-Residence experience in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  Soon, word came that our pilot would not be picking us up; he had been retasked to take law enforcement rangers out to investigate a report of Dall Sheep poaching.  Often, these backcountry rangers receive spotty information but still have to head out quickly before the evidence trail runs cold.  It was my first exposure to the life of a natural resources law enforcement ranger.

It is so easy for those who visit our national parks or other public lands to chide those who are tasked with enforcing the law.  I  have heard many photographers complain about NPS rangers in Denali National Park & Preserve enforcing the rules of the road or distance limitations to certain wildlife, calling these rangers “Ranger Dick.”  But our rangers face so many hazards and pitfalls when performing their duties, none with more clarity than the story of Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, who was killed in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, on January 1, 2012, as she set up a road block to stop a driver that had run a chain-up checkpoint.  The driver opened fire, killing Ranger Anderson before she had a chance to get out of her vehicle.

We don’t think of the hazards that our natural resources rangers face in the performance of their duties.  Heck, in Alaska, for many of them, just getting out and doing their routine jobs can be dangerous: lots of small plane flights, heading out into hazardous conditions, heading out where there are few resources to help, facing down possible law breakers who are likely armed with some sort of weapon.  This last point is now a reality for all National Park Service rangers, no thanks to President Obama signing a law that makes it legal for people to carry firearms in all of our National Parks.  At least before rangers didn’t have to worry about that factor as much when confronting law breakers.

Natural resource rangers have been dealing with law breakers for decades, but mostly the kind that violate fish and wildlife regulations.  Snaring instead of hooking fish, taking too small of a deer or taking a moose out of season.  Using the wrong kind of traps or other methods of taking wildlife that are not authorized.  There are several great books out there in the genre of natural resources crime fighting that are a an excellent read to understand this world better.  The best one I have read is Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden by Terry Grosz.  Mr. Grosz has written several books since and I will have to start getting caught up in his work.

But there is an insidious trend happening in our country where the crimes of “civilized” society are creeping their way into our public lands.  The incident with Ranger Anderson is an extreme example.  Quietly, behind the scenes and pretty much out of the scrutiny of corporate media, the drug wars have spilled into our public lands as well.  I am talking about the massive amounts of marijuana cultivation going on right now in approximately 67 national forests nationwide.  There is story after story of these grow sites being found from the northeast to the southwest, with the enormous costs (up to $300,000 per acre) of restoration not to mention the incredible risk of rangers encountering armed individuals tending to these marijuana fields.

It’s hard to imagine a world where our park rangers have to face deadly armed gunmen on a shooting spree or drug cartels in the performance of their duties.  Our public lands are supposed to be places of solace and refuge from the darker side of our world.  Rangers should be able to spend their time offering interpretive lectures, answering silly questions about natural features, showing visitors all the wonders that await them in our public lands.  I cannot recall the number of times I have been impressed by the kindness, courtesy and knowledge of a park ranger.  Entering into a dialogue with them is always one of my favorite parts of visiting our national forests, parks, monuments and wildlife refuges.  Yet, increasingly, they face these outside threats and do so with an ever-decreasing budget, slashed by politicians in Washington, D.C. who rarely visit our national parks and don’t see the value in continuing to fund them what they need.

So, in honor of Ranger Anderson and all other natural resources rangers who protect us and our public lands, I hope that you will consider what you find valuable in their work and the places they protect, and contact your Congressional delegation and tell them how you feel.  Also, to honor Ranger Anderson, I am posting some images from the place she died serving: Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.  And next time you visit a national forest, park, monument or wildlife refuge, please thank a ranger for what they do.


Best of 2011

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
Best of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of a Photograph: “Denali Zen”

Monday, October 31st, 2011
The Making of a Photograph:

In the summer of 2004, Alaska experienced an unusually busy and destructive fire season.  According to the Alaska Division of Air Quality, it was the warmest and third driest summer on record.  By the end of August, nearly 6.6 million acres had burned in a total of 701 fires spread out across the state.  The bulk of those fires, though, occurred in an area known as the Interior, which spans from north of Denali National Park up to the southern foothills of the Brooks Range.  There were so many particulates in the air, recorded levels in Fairbanks were over the EPA Hazardous 24 hour level for 15 days.

At the end of August, I went to Denali National Park & Preserve for a long weekend.  I was going to stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna and give two evening slide show presentations, and a daytime photo session on macro photography out at Wonder Lake.

But, as a result of the summer’s fires, there were no grand scenic vistas to behold that autumn in Denali National Park.  The grand views from Polychrome Pass were absent; any view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) itself was completely absent.  I had to take a flight seeing tour with Kantishna Air and get above the smoke ceiling of 9,000 feet in order to see The Mountain.

When heading out of the park, a lone willow standing off the side of the road in Thorofare Pass caught my attention.  I hiked a short way off the road to approach the tree, and noticed how the smoke haze was affecting the overlapping mountain ridge lines in the background.  While the smoke may have obscured the normal expansive views, it helped to create delineation between the mountain ridges that would otherwise not be visible.  But the smoke also created a very bright overcast, creating some exposure challenges.

I selected a classic “Rule of Thirds” composition, placing the tree in the lower right part of the composition.  Rules of composition are meant to be guidelines, not necessarily to be followed as law.  This time, however, it worked out well for what the scene had to offer.  To balance out the exposure challenges, I used a three-stop graduated neutral density filer, placing the dark parts of the filter on the flat, smoky sky.  I maximize the depth of field, I selected an aperture of f/22 and let aperture priority set the shutter speed.

This image was selected as the Best in Category for Scenics in the 2005 Alaska magazine photo competition.  You can view and purchase it in my Denali National Park gallery.

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.

“Where were you when …” Remembering 9/11 in Denali

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

How many times in our nation’s history do we have to have an event so profound that it is burned into our psyche, into our collective memory?  How many times do we have to have events that are recalled by, “Where were you when …?”  Pearl Harbor.  The assassination of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy.  The Challenger Explosion.  And, of course, 9/11.  That’s two just for my generation, well, at least, that I can remember.  King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated while I was alive, but before I can remember.

And while all but one of those events, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, was a deliberate act committed by men who could not exist within the demands of a civil society, they all stood to give us pause, to wonder amongst ourselves who we were as a people, where we were going.  They all in one way or another changed the shape of how we believed and perceived our way of life, altered the course and tone of our country.  For Pearl Harbor, it was an awakening from economic nightmare and deliverance from an isolationist world view, launching us to ultimate prominence as a world power, not only because of our might but because of our leadership.  With the assassinations of the 1960s, it pierced the growing hope of social change and darkened the hearts of those who had come to believe that a new day was upon us.  With the Challenger explosion, it dampened our spirit of exploration and stalled – eventually killed – the space shuttle program.

And then, there was 9/11.  So many people have used the phrase “post-9/11 world” as if there was something that happened on that day that was so different than any other singular event in our nation’s history.  Had there never been a significant terrorist attack on U.S. soil before?  Of course there was, in 1995 white anti-government Christian extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols detonated an explosive that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.  Well, had U.S. soil never been attacked by foreigners before?  Of course it had.  The British sacked Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, burning the White House.  The Japanese attacked Hawaii at Pearl Harbor and invaded Alaska at multiple points on the Aleutian Islands during World War II.  Well, how about Islamic terrorists, certainly they had never attacked U.S. interests before, had they?  Of course they had, with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the small boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the embassy bombings in Africa, and on and on.

The point of this blog post is not to explore why this particular attack had the profound impact on U.S. society, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. domestic law enforcement and intelligence that it has.  My interest is not in exploring how a group of people involved in a neo-conservative organization called the Project for the New American Century, a group of people who wielded inordinate influence over foreign policy decisions in the White House, asserted in 1998 that there needed to be a “New Pearl Harbor” in order for them to pursue their agenda, and how ignoring a Presidential Daily Briefing on August 6, 2001, which specifically warned President George W. Bush that Osama Bin Laden was planning an attack on the U.S. using aircraft as missiles, led to that “New Pearl Harbor” those people so desperately wanted.  So much has happened to this country in the wake of that terrible day, so much unrestrained power and abuse of power, that is seems almost pointless to explore such nuances.  I simply want to leave it all behind, leave the expounding to the pundits and historians, and reflect on what I was doing on that day.

I think I was probably in the best place in the world to be on September 11, 2001.

I had risen early that morning in the cabin where I was staying at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, deep within the heart of Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska.  I and several other photographers piled into two vans to head to Wonder Lake to capture the sunrise, completely unaware that the attacks had already begun.  The lodge where we were staying at that time did not have Internet, television, or a land line.  It was out of the range of cellular phone towers.  Our only link to the outside world was a fax machine and an intermittently-working satellite phone.

I had been living in Alaska for just over two years, yet this was my first time in Denali.  I was standing on the park road at the northern edge of Wonder Lake, spending my first sunrise in the park waiting to photograph a classic moment in Alaska landscape photography – first light on Denali, the highest peak in North America.

Seeing Denali in the morning at Wonder Lake for the first time is amazing.  Long before the sun even rises, you get to gaze upon the massive north face of the mountain, standing high above the moraine of the Muldrow Glacier, presenting the tallest rise from foothills to summit of any mountain in the world.  The mountain absorbs all the soft pastel colors of pre-sunrise light, reflecting its immense façade on the smooth surface of Wonder Lake.  I had seen Denali at sunrise the morning before as we were heading into the park, but from a position 90 miles farther away, and from a very different vantage point, showing both the south and north summits.

When light finally started to fall on Denali on this particular morning, it was muted by clouds to the east.  The amazing alpenglow light show that I have later come to enjoy for sunrise on Denali never came to fruition that morning.  There was merely a hint of alpenglow on the sides of some adjacent peaks, but never any good light on the mountain itself.  Once it was clear that the light had faded for good, we returned to the lodge for breakfast … and for the news of what had happened.

When we approached the side entrance to the lodge to enter the dining room, we were met by a sign posted on the door with bullet points of information: airplanes crashed into World Trade Center in New York, suspected terrorists were responsible.  We also learned that other planes had gone down, one at the Pentagon and another one that was suspected to be on its way to the White House.  All air travel was suspended.  We spent the rest of the day milling about at the lodge, trying to learn more, talking with each other about what had happened.  In addition to the group of photographers, there were also some VIPs staying at the lodge: Stephen Root and Wayne Knight.  They were stranded because they had planned to fly out of the park via Kantishna Air Service, but would have to wait.  Of all the places to be grounded in Alaska, the Denali Backcountry Lodge was pretty darn good.  It was certainly better than the many moose or caribou hunters who sat waiting for days and days for an air taxi that never showed, wondering why there was no pickup and whether there was enough food left to wait it out.

That evening we returned to Wonder Lake to some incredible evening light, lenticular clouds, amazing fall colors, and luscious alpenglow.  That night, we had a vibrant swirling display of aurora borealis.

It was only two days later when we drove out of the park that we learned that the World Trade Center towers had completely collapsed.  We learned about the Korean Air Lines scare that forced evacuations of several tall office buildings in downtown Anchorage.  We considered ourselves lucky to be free of the fear and the constant media assault, continually showing the chaos and destruction that fell upon Manhattan, deepening the trauma in our collective experience.

Ten years later, I returned to the Denali Backcountry Lodge, this time as a guest presenter.  It was my fifth visit to the lodge since 9/11, my third as a guest presenter.  I thought about my first time at the lodge and the monumental events that occurred during my first visit to Denali National Park & Preserve.  As I left the lodge and headed back out of the park along the long road, I paused at Wonder Lake to capture the calm, still waters of the lake and the soft pastel blue light bathing Denali.  I pondered how wonderful it was that, despite the turmoil that had embroiled our country since 9/11, our mountains majesty still reigned supreme.

Photographs can capture important events like those surrounding the attacks of 9/11 and remind us of the bad and evil in the world.  But, fortunately, they can also remind us of the beauty and resilience of nature, and how we can always go back to it to feel at peace and secure.

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.

Rethinking the blog; at the Smithsonian

Sunday, June 12th, 2011
Rethinking the blog; at the Smithsonian

Michelle keeps telling me that I do not use this blog enough, that I rely too much on my short, daily posts on Facebook to get the word out there.  Well, she is right.  All I have to do is look around for a bit at what other photographers are doing to get confirmation.

Some time back, I reported that my “Wolf Tracks on Ice” image had been selected as the “Environmental Issues” category winner for the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards sponsored by Nature’s Best Photography magazine.  According to Nature’s Best Photography, there were 20,000 images submitted in the competition, and 500 selected as semi-finalists.  Of those, a total of 150 were chosen for inclusion in the magazine, with 18 category winners and the remainder as highly honored.   As a category winner, my image was automatically included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History that went on display on April 16, and will remain on display until the end of September.

Michelle and I took the opportunity of this honor to travel to Washington, D.C., where we spent about five days visiting museums, monuments and memorials, and visiting our two U.S. senators.  The highlight, of course, was the evening reception at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History to see the exhibition, meet other award recipients, and talk to people about our piece.  Each category winner was presented their award and given the opportunity to speak.  I took the opportunity to thank Nature’s Best and the Smithsonian for the honor of being there, and to thank Michelle for her support.  I briefly told the story about when the photo was taken, and remarked that it was likely that Zak Richter (the park ranger with whom I was mushing) and I were the only people in the park that day, the only people in 9 million acres of wilderness.  Given how few people visit the park each year – a few thousand – it was highly unlikely that many people would ever have the privilege of such an experience.  But, I noted that, as a nature photographer, that is part of why we do what we do; to capture images of things and locations that other people will likely never see, and share those images so that at least people can live vicariously through our experiences and feel a connection to the place.

As I noted at the outset, it is time to rethink the blog, make it a better tool for communicating ideas and information.  And boy, do I have a lot of ideas!  Watch out.