Archive for September, 2011

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.

Old Friends in the Landscape

Friday, September 16th, 2011
Old Friends in the Landscape

Many species of wildlife are rather territorial.  Birds nest in the same place each year.  Caribou chose particular locations to return to again and again over the years to calve.  Bears pick particular locations to gather and hunt their food, covering the same territory year after year.  If you visit the same location to photograph often enough, you start to see familiar faces in the fur and feather.  You start to see old friends in the landscape.

First, there were the swans.  Every year, in the summer and in the autumn, you could count on finding a mating pair of trumpeter swans hanging out in a large pond and wetlands area near the Parks Highway north of Talkeetna.  In the early summer, I would pass by on my way up to Denali and see them out in the water with their signets, feeding along the reeds and grooming themselves.  But in the autumn, the couple would again be alone, with the kids having flown the coop to go on and forge their own relationships.  But I have not seen the swans in the last four years or so, and I wonder what has become of them.  Did one of the pair succumb to old age or meet an untimely death, or did they simply decide it was time to find another pond to hang out at during the autumn migration?

Then, there is the brown bear sow who frequents the Thorofare Pass region of Denali National Park & Preserve.  Some years she has twins, others, triplets, but I have been seeing her frequent the area since at least 2004.  As with many brown bears in Denali, she has a blonde coat that shines against the autumn alpine tundra.  The first time I saw her was during a particularly smoky August after a raging summer fire season took 6 million acres of Alaskan landscape.  She was browsing blueberries along the hillside with her yearling triplets.  This year, she had a pair of two year old offspring, browsing for blueberries in almost exactly the same spot where Michelle and I saw them last year when we were in the park on a road lottery pass.

Earlier on the road in Denali, you can also enjoy the “boys” of Polycrhome Pass.  For the last two years, I have enjoyed seeing a group of Dall sheep rams hanging out very near the road.  As with most wildlife, they are more active and more likely to be seen in the morning.

Wolves are less consistent.  While they tend to remain within a certain distance of their den sites, those den sites are subject to change.  Prior to this year, there was an active wolf presence in Thorofare Pass in Denali due to a den site not far from the road.  However, this year, for reasons unknown to park biologists, the wolves moved their den.  In years past, the Toklat wolf pack frequently provided superb opportunities to observe and photograph a wide variety of wolf behavior, from play among pups to an epic take-down of a bull moose that took almost an entire day.

But perhaps the most frequently observable friend in the landscape is the Anchorage hillside moose.  Thanks to my friend Nick Fucci, I have been visiting those moose for over a decade.  Every year, you can always count on finding them along the Willawaw Lakes Trail across the stream from the South Fork of Campbell Creek in a stretch of lowlands and taiga forest.  While you always have to keep on your toes and be mindful of where the moose are (you can easily find yourself surrounded by a harem of a dozen cows if you are not paying attention), they generally ignore you and carry on with their business, from rooting in wallows to sniffing and challenging each other.

I never have exclusively been a wildlife photographer.  There are some photographers who exclusively or primarily photograph wildlife, some even specializing in one particular category, like birds.  But, I am a location photographer.  And one of the advantages of getting to know a location well is knowing when its natural residents are out in the landscape, foraging, traveling, mating, or whatever else is necessary to survive and thrive.  Understanding those residents greatly enhances the experience of the place and deepens the meaning of being there and capturing its wildness.


“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.

The life of a drift netter

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
The life of a drift netter

I took my first step onto a drift net boat out in Ugashik Bay, stepping from the tender Westward onto the F/V Chulyen.  The Chulyen had already delivered its fish to another tender and came over to the Westward to purchase supplies and receive a delivery of new nets.  While the tender was anchored out and relatively stable in its position, the swells of the sea made for an interesting jump from the Westward onto the bobbing Chulyen.  I tossed my bag over to the Chulyen‘s deck and scrambled over the side.

A typical drift boat is about 32 feet in length with a covered pilot house that serves as the engine room, bridge, kitchen, and lounge for the boat.  Forward, under the forecastle or bow of the ship, are the crew quarters.  With barely enough space to fit three narrow bunks, the crew quarters serves as bedroom and storage room.  Getting into and out of your bunk requires a bit of flexibility and creativity.  There is no toilet or shower; going to the “bathroom” involves sitting on a bucket out on the aft deck of the boat.  The closed quarters force the skipper to come up with creative ways to use the available space.  And it is in this total living space of about 8×10 feet that a skipper and his crew will spend six weeks or so without setting foot on land.

Drift boat life is all about waiting.  Waiting until that noon or 3:00 announcement from Fish and Game about whether there will be an opener that day and, if so, how long it will last.  Waiting at the preferred spot, ready to drop that net buoy when the opener begins.  Waiting after the net is out to begin hauling the net back in and picking sockeye off the net.  Waiting in line behind five other drift boats to deliver your catch.  Waiting until that next opener.  And then, repeating that cycle over and over for about six weeks or so.   In between, during all the waiting, there is joking, telling stories, smoking cigarettes (everybody in the fishing community smokes – everybody), reading, and doing whatever else it takes to kill the time and get some rest.

But then, there are furious periods of activity.  Once that buoy is down, the captain starts motoring the boat down range to let out the net, typically about 200 fathoms in length.  A fathom is six feet, so, four football fields in length of gill net.  Then, several times during the opener, the crew will haul in that net using a hydraulic winch, stopping frequently to “pick” sockeye salmon off the net and toss them into the boat’s hold below the metal plates on the deck.  There, the sockeye will sit in bed of ice to be delivered to a waiting tender.  Once at the tender, the crew will receive the crane hook from the tender (which also contains a scale to measure the weight of each bale of fish), secure the bale to the crane hook, and assist in directing the fish over the tender as it is lifted up out of the drift boat and over to the tender to be dumped into its chilled storage holds below.

For more images of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, visit my Bristol Bay gallery.