Archive for June, 2011

Up Falls Creek

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
Up Falls Creek

Went for a nice hike this morning to one of the more popular hikes along the Turnagain Arm: the Falls Creek Trail.  According to 55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska by Helen D. Nienhueser & John Wolfe, Jr., the total trail is about 5.25 miles long with a 2,900 foot elevation gain.  My friend John and I were not interested in going all the way, but we wanted to get toward the top.  Our turnaround point was the area were the birch grove gave way to the alder along the creek.  Including my extended stop toward the top to photograph the creek under a canopy of alders, we took about three hours.  The even, diffuse overcast light made for perfect lighting to capture the stream, the woods, and the undercover.

I find, however, that the more and more I photograph a particular type of subject – like cascading streams, for example – it becomes increasingly challenging to photograph the subject in a unique, creative way.  But, that’s a good thing as far as I am concerned; I need to stay fresh, stay on my creative toes.  Fortunately, living in Anchorage, I am so close to so many locations that give me the opportunity to repeatedly visit and try new approaches, new ways of composing similar – or even the same – subjects.

Traversing Alaskan canoe country

Friday, June 17th, 2011
Traversing Alaskan canoe country

Seventeen years ago I appeared on the shores of Seagull Lake in northern Minnesota, on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  I had never been that far north in Minnesota before and was showing up to start my first post-college job as a canoe guide and camp coordinator at Wilderness Canoe Base.  For the next two summers, I was exposed to real wilderness for the first time, exemplified by a network of lakes connected by trails called “portages.”  All was foreign to me, so foreign that it took me a while to get accustomed to it all.  It was more of a culture shock for me than the first time I stepped “off the boat” at the naval base in Subic Bay.

But that wilderness, that mode of travel, became a part of me.  For years after leaving the camp, I would return twice a year for a solo trip.  Four or five days to escape into the wilderness, to clear the mental cobwebs, to renew myself in a land where I could travel for days without seeing another soul.  Until this year, the last time I had portaged and canoed through the country was when I left Minnesota in 1999.

Now, I have been to Red Shirt Lake in the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area a couple of times, but that is different.  There, you can rent a canoe that waits for you at the end of the hike into the lake.  Then, you paddle a short distance to a public use cabin and then return the canoe to the rental rack without leaving the lake.  Just not the same.  Last weekend I went on a bona fide canoe trip, traversing through several lakes in a day and slogging through the portages between them.

We put in at a canoe trailhead near mile 5 on the Nancy Lakes Parkway.  Per my experience in the Boundary Waters, all my gear for the trip fit into one bag, a bag designed for canoe country travel; the Duluth Pack.  The camera gear, two lenses, a body, and some filters, fit into a hand-carry Pelican case.  My watercraft of choice is a green Old Town Penobscot 17-foot canoe, fitted with yoke pads for ease of carrying.  One of the things I learned in my Boundary Waters days that has served me well is how to properly portage a canoe, including using a solo lift technique to get it up on my shoulders without any help.  It may look crazy, but seventy pounds does not feel to heavy when properly balanced on your shoulders on a pair of yoke pads.  Unfortunately for the other two canoes in my group, neither was the type of canoe designed for extensive travel: too bulky and heavy, and no yoke pads.  Ideally, a well-designed canoe traveling group will have the right balance of gear and personnel to require only one trip through each portage.  We surprisingly managed to make only two trips for each portage, with – yikes – dragging of the other canoes as the chosen method of getting them through the portages.  My camp director at WCB would not approve.

Almost immediately when out in the water, I could nearly imagine myself back in northern Minnesota.  A pair of Common loons paddled in the distance, we were surrounded by boreal forest, and the world looked flat.  A closer examination over the next few lakes highlighted some differences.  In northern Minnesota, there is a lot of exposed bedrock, the legacy of the retreat of ancient glaciers during the last ice age.  In some areas, and I have sat on one of them, the exposed bedrock is 3.4 billion years old.  Many shorelines along the lakes have large, outreaching slabs of gray slate rock, making for great landing (and sunning) platforms.  The lake edges in Nancy Lakes, in contrast, are all brush and bog; no solid ground to land on save the portages.  And most of those are supplemented with wooden boardwalks in order to traverse the bogs.  Another difference between the BWCA and Alaska is the size of the spruce trees: Minnesota trees are much taller, Alaska spruce, except for around Girdwood and in the Southeast (the temperate rain forest areas) are rather puny. One of the most significant differences was where camping is allowed.  In the BWCA, the Forest Service has set up designated camping areas with tent pads, a fire grill, and a government latrine (a seat on a hole, not an outhouse).  But in Nancy Lakes, the only “camping” is in public use cabins.  Finally, the float planes were a difference.  In the BWCA, the use of private planes below 4,000 feet is prohibited (that burned the chaps of some remote lodge owners when the area was set aside by President Eisenhower), yet in Nancy Lakes, there was a constant drone of float planes going overhead for the four days we were out there.

But the spirit of canoe country travel that I found in Minnesota is alive and well in the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area.  Sure, Lynx Lake was full of private cabins and accessible by motor boats, but so is the stretch between Seagull Lake and Lake Saganaga in the BWCA.  You still get the chance to go as far as you want to go, to travel wherever the lakes and portages can take you, to enjoy the wilder places in a much slower pace.  While it may not be a designated wilderness area, the Nancy Lakes area had all the qualities that I seek in wilderness.  And as a bonus, it had one thing that Minnesota’s Boundary Waters did not – mountains.  In one view from our cabin on James Lake the first evening, I could see the Talkeetna Mountains, and in another view, Pioneer Peak and the Twin Peaks dominated the distant horizon.  Subtle but important reminders that I am lucky to live in America’s wildest and largest state.

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.