Archive for December, 2009

Welcoming a new year

Thursday, December 31st, 2009
Welcoming a new year

In Alaska, the biggest parties seem to happen in the middle of winter.  During the short season we call Construction Season, people are generally frantically working in as much as they can of those things they cannot do the remaining eight months of the year – gardening, hiking, fishing, outdoor maintenance on the home … you get the picture.

And what better way to bring in the new year then to have one of the largest parties in Anchorage, right in the heart of downtown at Town Square Park.  Hosted by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and sponsored by NECA and IBEW, the annual “Fire and Ice” New Year’s Eve celebration is quite an extravaganza.  Skaters, fire throwers, dancers, live music – everything you would want from a nighttime winter outside party.  Keeping the whole party going through the evening, twin brothers Wayne and Shane Mitchell of TBA Theatre entertained the crowds without fail.  Fortunately, it was quite a bit warmer than the subzero of last year’s party.  It must have been at least ten degrees outside.

This year’s theme celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Statehood for our sister state, Hawai’i.  Replete with hula dancers and a volcano that erupted with fireworks every fifteen minutes, the party had much to offer in celebrating Hawaiian culture.  There was certainly more on display to celebrate Hawaiian culture for this party than there was downtown on January 3, 2009 to celebrate Alaskan culture when we marked our own fifty years as a state.  I am not quite sure how that worked out.  Perhaps hula dancers are more pleasing to look at than dog teams and guys in Carharts.  We certainly see more of the latter than the former.  But some Alaska Native dancers at least would have been in order for our own celebration.

Part of the fun in attending these events is also in seeing the interaction among the VIPs.  Normally, it is the Anchorage mayor who really sends off the party with a big welcome and greeting to the crowd.  While our new Mayor Dan Sullivan filled the letter of that role, his crowd skills were not quite up to the task of the occasion.  Standing behind him, the former mayor now United States Senator Mark Begich waited for his chance to speak to the crowd.  There was a visible distance between the two men, no doubt because of the voracious and constant criticism that Mayor Sullivan has rained down upon Senator Begich about his former job performance as mayor.  But Senator Begich stepped in and spoke to the crowd, showing that he still had the power to truly give this party a proper sendoff.  Joining in, after giving Mayor Sullivan some “rabbit ears” while he was talking, was Congressman Don Young, how acted as if he had not spent nearly two million dollars over the last couple of years in fending off a federal investigation into his various shenanigans.  Later, inside the Performing Arts Center, I enjoyed playing voyeur to a lively chat between local blogger, Huffington Post contributor and frequent MSNBC guest Shannyn Moore and Senator Begich.

All in all, another fine entry to a new year in Anchorage.

Turnagain mornings

Thursday, December 31st, 2009
Turnagain mornings

On Tuesday morning, I had planned to go out to a spot on the Turnagain Arm and capture the sunrise.  My hope was that the morning colors would be brilliant, as the weather conditions seemed to be right.  I was correct that the pre-sunrise colors were simply amazing; blazing reds fading to pinks and eventually gold.  Unfortunately, the colors displayed a half an hour earlier than I thought they would.  As a result, I was only able to capture the golds by the time I got there.  I lingered for a while, capturing some early light on the Tordrillo Mountains, and made my way around the Hillside area looking for a good angle on Mount Foraker.

The next morning, I resolved to be at the Turnagain Arm much earlier to ensure I did not miss my window.  Unfortunately, the colors did not come this time.  But I noticed the swift outgoing tide, combined with the swift movement of clouds in almost the opposite direction, and decided to set up a time lapse.  Doing time lapse photography is quite a different switch from regular still photography.  You have to commit to the composition and leave it there, without making any changes, trying different crops or angles.  But you also have the pleasure of sitting back and just enjoying the scenery and the moment while the camera does its work.  I enjoyed a breakfast of toast and banana, as well as some hot coffee, while the morning happened, the camera worked, and I could just sit back and relax.

Since I knew I would be creating a short time lapse, I shot in RAW because I was not concerned about card space.  I also used the camera battery instead of any external power because, again, it would be a short shooting time, a total of about forty minutes as it turned out.  The sun never quite made its way out of the clouds by sunrise, so I switched off and headed home.

The next few days call for clear skies, so, with the full moon, I am going to try a nighttime time lapse, perhaps at Portage Lake or some other remote spot where I will not get any light pollution.  Come to think of it, Portage might not work, because Whittier is on the other side of the pass behind the lake and just might produce enough light.  We shall see.

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Sun and ski

Saturday, December 26th, 2009
Sun and ski

We finally had noticeable sunlight down here in the Anchorage bowl.  I don’t know how long it has been since the skies have been fully clear, perhaps three weeks or more.  When the sun does come, it is in fits and teases, barely sticking around to take notice.  But today we had a nice shaft of sunlight that stuck around for a couple of hours, finding just the right spot in the clouds to bath us in its golden goodness.

The timing was perfect, too, as Michelle and I were grabbing our skis and gear to head out on the trails somewhere to enjoy the day.  We decided on driving over to Goose Lake and connecting with the trails from there.  There are at least three different ways to go, with the main choices being south along the Chester Creek Trail system all the way to Westchester Lagoon and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, or north to Russian Jack Springs Park or beyond.  We chose north.

It was such a nice switch from our foray into the Campbell Science Center trails of a couple of weeks ago, as these are not multi-use trails, but trails specifically groomed for classic and skate ski only.  Granted, some winter bicyclists use the trails, but they stay on the skate ski areas and don’t cause damage to the trails.  But skiing in groomed tracks in snow that was slick and smooth, but not icy, was absolutely perfect.

We skied up to Russian Jack park, then turned around, going on a different trail that looked like it would loop back to Goose Lake.  After a while, we realized it was a bit more hilly than we were interested in for the day, so we bushwhacked through the woods back to the main trail.  Even with classic Nordic skis, going through the woods and breaking your own trail in deep snow isn’t all that bad.  The skis do a fine job of distributing your weight so you don’t sink too much, and you are still able to somewhat glide through the snow.  When we reached the main trail, we had a nice break with a cup of hot Godiva chocolate.  Of course, I stopped to take some pictures, admiring a grove of short, dark spruce with the snow clinging on the north side of the trunks.  A skate skier came by, undoubtedly perturbed at me for setting up a tripod in his path.  I obliged him by including him in one of the photos.

Christmas Eve aerial

Thursday, December 24th, 2009
Christmas Eve aerial

If you like doing aerial photography, it helps to know people who are pilots.  When they call and ask if you would like to go up and do some shooting, even if the light isn’t that great, it’s best to take advantage when you can.  So, when I received a call from such a pilot on the morning on Christmas Eve asking if I was interested in going up, I said yes.  Of course, the clouds were dominating the sky, and there were few breaks, but I am ever the optimist when it comes to photography.  I generally try to not let current conditions dictate future photo plans.

We met up over at Merrill Field.  Our aircraft for the flight was a Cessna 172 Skyhawk II, a four-seater of common size for use in Alaska.  The original plan was to fly down along the Turnagain Arm to Portage, but the clouds were getting pretty thick up there.  So, instead, we flew along the Powerline Pass area, across over to Ship Lake, then down along the Ship Creek drainage before turning back for a return along Bear Valley.

It was the first time I had ever glimpsed this portion of the Chugach Mountains.  You get a sense of how connected the valleys and drainages are by looking at them on a map, but you really don’t get a true appreciation for it until you can see the connections from the air.  I visualized many routes that would make for good backpacking trips.  One of the great things about living in Anchorage is the accessible wilderness.

Moose and frost

Sunday, December 13th, 2009
Moose and frost

We have not seen the sun down here in the Anchorage Bowl for over a week.  It’s not that the sun has not been shining.  It has simply being doing so above a fog bank that, at times, has severely limited visibility.  And with the temperatures lingering in the mid-teens, the fog and cold have sculpted millions of tiny ice crystals in the form of hoar frost on trees, bushes, and lingering plants. 

This wintery wonderland was the setting for a beautiful afternoon of Nordic skiing in the woodlands near the Campbell Science Center.  Michelle and I loaded up our classic skis and drove over to the parking lot near the gated entrances to the Campbell Science Center and nearby BLM complex.  Staying purely on the multi-use trails, which were a little slick from lots of use, we did a wide loop around the area.  It was so refreshing to be out in the frosty woods, burning the muscles while sucking in cool, crisp air, listening only to the silence of the woods and our movement through them. 

As we skiied to the west on the trail that runs along the Campbell Airstrip, we came upon a cow moose and her spring calf.  They were working their way along our trail, coming slowly in our direction.  We moved off to the right to get out of their way and gain a better vantage point for photographing them.  A couple of hikers came along on the trail and were not quite as cautious as we were in giving the moose a wide berth.  The two moose eventually moved far enough along for us to bypass them on a side trail and get back on course. 

The encounter confirmed two things for me.  One, it confirmed that Michelle is definitately “The Moose Whisperer” as I often call her.  She frequently calls me throughout the week saying, “I just saw a moose” or “There’s a big bull moose right outside our office.”  Of course, I am not always in the position to chase down the moose she is calling about, and she knows it; it’s part of her fun in calling. 

It also confirmed that I am lucky to live in one of the best larger cities in the United States.  Anchorage has so many wild places, so much habitat, where such animals can still live out their existences despite the city’s tendency to keep growing.  I can only hope that as the city continues to grow, that the city can continue to resist the urge to dispose of its wild places in the name of development. 

Winter Partnership

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
Winter Partnership

Almost five years ago, I was wandering around Town Square Park late in the winter evening.  I had recently left Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse, having taken some production stills of their latest show that was getting ready to premiere.  I saw some of the lit ice sculptures in the park and starting taking pictures of the ice and an ice skater who was working her way around the ice.  Someone approached me and asked, “Are you a professional?”  I said yes and handed the inquiring woman my business card.  As it turned out, the woman, Cheri Spink, worked for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.  They were looking for someone to photograph the ice sculptures being created as part of the annual “Crystal Gallery of Ice.” 

After the success of that venture, I started photographing the major events the Partnership hosts each year: New Year’s Eve “Fire and Ice,” the “Heart of Anchorage” Awards, summer concerts in the park, and so on.  While the Anchorage Downtown Partnership has events going on all year long, it’s winter presence in the downtown area has really had the strongest impact, I think.  Most locals are pretty good at finding ways to entertain themselves in the summer months.  Winter can be a little more challenging.

There are two highlights of the winter for the Partnership.  The first is the New Year’s Eve “Fire and Ice” celebration, which is organized with help from the IBEW and NECA.  The evening starts at around 5:00 p.m., with organized games for children and families, followed sometimes by ice skating presentations on the main park ice rink.  All around throughout the evening, entertainers (mostly involving flames of some sort), food vendors, and musicians provide extra-curricular activities to what is going on in the main heart of the park, usually with the assistance of an emcee. 

The other event is the “Crystal Gallery of Ice,” an ice sculpture gallery created each year in the park.  Each block of ice is sponsored by a local business, and each year’s gallery follows a theme.  The artists are given about a week to finish their pieces.  Each sculpture is judged by a variety of factors, including creativity, adherence to the theme, ability to be formed from one block of ice, and so on. 

Over the years of photographing these events for the Downtown Partnership, my cameras have been subjected to all kinds of conditions.  One year, the ice started to melt almost as soon as the sculptures were completed because we got one of our forty-degree snaps.  Last year, for New Year’s Eve, it was about ten degrees below zero.  But the advent of, and improvements to, digital photography has made photographing such things such a treat.  The white balance for digital cameras does a great job at capturing the nighttime artificial light, as opposed to film rated for daylight.  I have the creative flexibility of trying different subjects and techniques, and being able to check the results out in the field.

But most of all that happenstance rendezvous almost five years ago has given me the opportunity to capture all sorts of neat moments, wonderful colors, amazing entertainment, and essentially capture the essence of downtown Anchorage in the wintertime.  And through building that relationship and devleloping my skills as a photographer over the years, it also gave me the opportunity to take photos of a Hawai’ian flame artist in preparation for this year’s New Year’s Eve party, where we will be celebrating Hawai’i’s 50th anniversary as a state.  And that photo, comined with another photo I took at the downtown celebration of Alaska’s 50th anniversary earlier this year, will grace the cover of the newest issue of “Good Deal” magazine.  It’s not exactly “Outdoor Photographer,” but with a circulation of 88,000, it will reach a lot of homes.  When you are trying to get your name out there as a photographer, every bit helps. 

In celebration of this winter Partnership, here are some photos from winter downtown events over the years.