Archive for September, 2009

Steller visitor

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009
Steller visitor

Although it is a bit early for us to get our usual avian visitors, we have been getting a few visits lately from Steller’s Jays.  It appears that the meal of choice for these members of the jay family is peanuts in the shell.  And these guys are very particular about the size and shape of shell they are looking for, as they like to place a minimum of two in their mouths at a time.  The first shell has to be small enough to toss to the back of the mouth, leaving room in the beak for at least a second shell.  I have even seen one jay try to fit three.  Once loaded up, the jay will fly off to some nearby location to store the shells, and quickly return for more.

The first time I ever saw a Steller’s Jay was in Mt. Rainier National Park.  I was visiting my friend Ben Hohman, who lives in Aberdeen on the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula, and we were visiting the nearby Cascade Range giant.  It was a clear, sunny day, and we had stopped at a pullout.  The Steller’s Jay was there, hopping around, busily checking out possible food sources on the ground, then up to a rock wall, then over to a branch on a tall pine tree.  The jay froze long enough for me to capture an image of him with Rainier in the background.  For years, it was my only sighting of a Steller’s Jay.  All I had to remember of their vibrant, glistening deep blue feathers was that shot.

Then, many years later, Michelle and I purchased our current home near Jewel Lake in Anchorage.  We had the usual visitors to our bird feeders last winter: black-capped and boreal chickadees, nuthatches, and gross beaks.   The cats came to love this aspect about our new home, a bird feeder ledge just right outsdide the window where the cats could watch, chirp, and sometimes pounce (with no success other than producing a solid “thump” on the glass and scaring the birds away for a time).  Then we started to see the tall, dark blue, inquisitive and very crafty Steller’s Jays.  (Although, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Anchorage is on the outer edge of the  Steller’s Jay range.)  It did not seem to phase the cats that these new visitors were considerably larger than the other birds, and sometimes almost as big as the cats themselves.

Our most recent visitor was particularly busy.  When he nearly exhausted our already-low peanut supply on the ledge, I went out to dump some more on to the ledge.  I was not even back to the window from the inside when he was back again at the feeder, busily picking through the new selection.  After five or six visits, I went and grabbed my camera to snap a few shots.  He came back about three more times before Menshe jumped up to the shelf on the inside of the window, spooking him off.  I expected the jay to return once he realized that Menshe was not a threat, so I stood and waited, hoping to get a shot of Menshe looking out the window at the jay on the feeder.  After about ten minutes, the jay did not return.

I know that winter will soon be upon us, and the myriad of other birds who visit our property will return for their usual frenzy feeding.  In the meantime, I will take comfort in and enjoy our deep blue Steller’s Jay visitors.  I will take comfort in knowing that we are providing them a means of surviving, while they provide us company and great entertainment.  One of these days, I hope to see where it is – and it is not too far away – that they fly to store those peanuts.

Autumn’s colors

Saturday, September 26th, 2009
Autumn's colors

For all the accolades given to New England for its fall colors, all of which are deserved I am sure, I feel there is nothing that beats fall colors in Alaska.  Rather than forest groves turning gold and orange with spots of red, entire mountainsides turn bright red as blueberry bushes and bearberry bushes turn red.  Then, later, as the willow changes its colors, the drainage areas provide bright gold accents to the red alpine tundra.  Painted against a blue sky with the accent of fresh snow on the peaks, and the Alaskan colors are exceptionally vivid.

I was chasing the light this evening after a photo shoot for the Alaska Wild, looking for the right angle to capture the light washing the sides of McHugh Peak.  I never found the right spot, but I was able to find the perfect location to capture Flattop Mountain so that it’s name’s origins could be best accentuated.  The aspens in the subalpine, surrounding neighborhoods on the hillside area, were approaching peak.  I knew I would not have the time I wanted to capture more images in the area, and kept winding my way through roads I had never heard of before, working my way through the hillside maze to get as high as I could before the sun went down.

Then I was reminded of another source of colors that are particularly vivid in the autumn.  As the sun dipped below a band of clouds on its final approach to the horizon, the visible light spectrum and atmosphere started to work their magic, painting the sky with orange, red, gold and blue hues.  I very quickly forgot the colors in the trees and did what I could to capture the sky before the colors faded.  Adding to the drama, as the sun dipped fully below, I caught glimpses of the Tordrillo Mountains of the Alaska Range above the band of clouds hovering above the Cook Inlet.

Kincaid coast

Sunday, September 20th, 2009
Kincaid coast

Michelle and I went for a one-year anniversary stroll through Kincaid Park today.  Although it was not part of our conscious thought process in selecting this park for a walk, it was where we got married – in the chalet.  We had hoped that day for weather such as we have had the last couple of days, but were not so lucky.  It almost seemed as if Mother Nature was trying to make it up to us.

As usual, we did not set out for our walk with any particular goal in mind.  Rather, we allowed the trails to guide us in meandering ways through the cottonwood, spruce and birch coastal forest.  We found our way down to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail along the bluff overlooking a portion of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

I have always known that there would be some decent access to the coastal area below the bluffs along Kincaid Park, but have never taken the time to find a trail.  Well, Michelle and I explored a side trail off the Coastal Trail and found our way to a spectacular view along the coastal area, with a trail down to the waterline.  At the time we started, the tide was really low, so there was plenty of room to move around.  It was obvious, too, that there was plenty of room to walk along the coast even above the mean high water mark.

One of the reasons I have embarked on my “Wild Anchorage” project is that I have found that the wild places within the Anchorage bowl (the main part of the city between the Knik Arm, Turnagain Arm and Chugach Mountains) was under-photographed.  I think that the coastal refuge area, with the exception of the popular Potter Marsh, has partcularly been under-considered by photographers over the years.  For my first foray into this part of the refuge, I was pleasantly surprised.

Up in Paradise

Thursday, September 17th, 2009
Up in Paradise

I went up into the hillside area above Anchorage yesterday evening to take advantage of the good light and bursting fall colors.  I was on another mission for the Great Land Trust to photograph properties they are working on acquiring to create more public access points to Chugach State Park.  The first is a plot near Bear Valley that would help to provide easy access from a parking lot off Rabbit Creek Road.  The second is in the back end of Paradise Valley, off a crude road one property owner built into the mountainside.

The first location offered some great views of the hillside homes reaching up to and abutting the border of Chugach State Park.  It was a perfect illustration for me of my “Wild Anchorage” project, showing the accessibility of wild places to the urban Anchorage environment.  Yet, many of these homes would certainly not be considered to be in an urban setting by most Lower 48 standards, as several homes lie outside of the fire service area in Anchorage.

On our way over to the Paradise Valley property, we passed by a garish McMansion subdivision that looked horribly out of place on the side of the mountain.  As I hiked the crude road to the back of the valley to photograph the proposed property area, I was treated to some of the best views of the Cook Inlet and south Anchorage coastal areas that I think can be found in town.  I found the views in many ways to rival those from Flattop Mountain.  The road itself also led into some spectacular scenery.  I hope that the land deal goes through, as it would give Anchorage residents superb access to McHugh Peak and nearby ridges to expand into and explore the park.

Gates aerial work

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Gates aerial work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalton Highway highlights

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Dalton Highway highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headed north, WAY north

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

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

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

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

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

More with the Trust

Monday, September 7th, 2009
More with the Trust

I have been photographing some more properties around Anchorage lately for the Great Land Trust.  (Click here for a previous post on the Trust.)  Actually, I photographed one of the properties, located in the Chugach foothills on the edge of Chugach State Park, right before I went down to Colorado for two weeks to work as the Artist-in-Residence for Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was during a rather smoky period of the summer for Anchorage, where the winds and pressures were just right to bring thick smoke from nearby fires into town for several days.  It made for some interesting photography and, fortunately did not interfere with my capturing the beauty of the location.  The Trust is working on getting some grants to finalize the purchase of this property so that the area can become a new public access point to the Park.

Last week, before I went up to Denali, I photographed a couple more properties that have already been purchased by or gifted to the Trust.  One, officially called Tanglewood Park, is near the frontage road along the Seward Highway.  It is primarily a wetlands and is a vast habitat for a diverse number of plant species that use wetlands to survive, as well as   great moose habitat.  Once on the property it is easy to lose sight of the civilization that surround the lot.

For the other, I photographed the Helen Louise McDowell Sanctuary between 36th and Tudor near the Seward Highway.  Decades ago, when housing subdivisions were being developed, the developers used this particular plot of land to store all of the soil that were removed for housing construction.  Essentially, the lot became a gravel and dirt fill area.  Now, it is a lush, forested area with some wetlands that is starting to develop its own character as a potentially thriving habitat for various waterfowl and other birds.  The Trust is in the process of completing a trail system, including some boardwalks, that will provide a sanctuary for those who want to escape for a peaceful walk through a wooded area smack dab in the middle of developments and commercial areas.

It is sanctuaries and parks like these places secured by the Trust that help Anchorage to stand apart from other larger cities as a special place.  There are so many wild and untamed places within the city that provide its residents the sort of wild lands that people on the East Coast have to drive hours to see.  I can only imagine that as Anchorage grows, the pressure to develop the greenbelts and untamed lands will become stronger and stronger.  This is why I have teamed up with the Great Land Trust to help them in preserving these lands.  It is also why I have started a book project to photograph the wild coastal areas, waterways, woods and mountain areas within the Anchorage bowl, ala Galen Rowell’s “Bay Area Wild” and the Blacklocks’ “Duluth Portfolio.”  Because it is important to keep such places — their intrinsic value simply cannot and should not be measured by the dollar.

Out to Thunderbird Falls

Sunday, September 6th, 2009
Out to Thunderbird Falls

Michelle and I went for a short hike today, to a spot I had never been in the ten years I have lived here.  I have driven by the exit to Thunderbird Falls many times as I headed out or in along the Glenn Highway, but never cared to go there.  I think it was because it is such a short and accessible hike, I feared – rightly so – that the trail would be overrun with people.  But there was also a certain creep factor for me connected with the place.

About a year before I moved here, 29-year-0ld Bobby Pfister was partying with his friend Jamie Douglas and a couple of lady friends, drinking and doing cocaine according to news accounts, when they decided to go for a 2 a.m. stroll on the trail to the falls.  Then, without warning, Douglas shot Pfister in the back, then twice more as he lay on the ground.  Douglas stowed the body under some leaves, twigs and moss about a mile from the trailhead.  Douglas was caught a few days later as he tried to catch a flight out of Anchorage.

I read about the case as I was working in the court system when I first moved here.  The descriptions of the murder, the partying, and the fact that police called it a “thrill killing” made me think all too much of the movie “Natural Born Killers.”  It simply turned me off to the spot.

But, the bad mojo of the past was not in the air as Michelle and I hiked up to the falls through the woods in a beautiful early-autumn day.  Rather, it was the hordes of children and dogs, along with their clueless adults, who detracted.  As we hiked and photographed along the way, we encountered constant streams of people coming to and going from the falls.

Now, I am not one of those conservation, outdoors-types who believes that public lands should be his own personal playground and everyone else should stay out.  Quite frankly, that type of person is a myth created by those who want public lands privatized for their own commercial gain. Our preference, though, for a hike in the woods is one of quiet and contemplation, to enjoy the time away from the noise of the city.  But the shortness and ease of the hike makes it perfect for families with small children.

Fortunately, I was still able to capture some images that show the character and quality of the place.  And good thing, too; I will probably choose to go back again at a time when it is not quite so busy.  Perhaps a minus-twenty winter day would work.  Or maybe after the viewing platform for the falls is open again to the public (it is currently under construction).  It was hard to photograph the falls up close and personal with all the spray coming from the falls.