Archive for November, 2011

Windows of Opportunity

Monday, November 28th, 2011
Windows of Opportunity

Sometimes life gets in the way and you cannot get out and shoot as much as you like.  I had not yet been out to photograph since snow fell on the ground here in the lower part of Anchorage a month ago, so I determined I would get up early on Saturday and head out.  The conditions looked good in the morning; skies to the east and west were dark and clear, with stars twinkling throughout.  With a 9:33 sunrise, I headed out just after 8:00 toward the Turnagain Arm, one of my favorite staples for morning photo locations.  Living in south Anchorage also makes me lean toward that southerly destination.

But as I approached the Turnagain Arm while heading south on the Seward Highway, I could increasingly see that the Arm was enshrouded in clouds.  I decided to keep going, hoping that I would see some windows in the clouds that would allow the sun to shine through once it rose.  I had to get all the way to Girdwood before I was able to see any such opening, and even then, it only was wide enough to show just a pair of peaks across the Turnagain Arm in the Kenai Mountains.  I kept going, looking for more openings, but as I continued southeast and ultimately down Portage Valley, the clouds simply grew thicker, more even, and lower.  My best hope was the pair of exposed peaks back up by Girdwood.

I headed back toward Girdwood and found a good vantage point where I could see the two peaks, stopping once to capture a moody scene of the arm and the cloudy landscape.  Once the sun finally rose, it sidelight the two peaks, showing a hint of alpenglow.  I captured a few images, and started to work my way home.  I still held out hope that, as I approached the mouth of the Arm, broken clouds would allow light to come through.

My hopes were fulfilled, for as I approached Bird Ridge, I started to see more glimpses of sunlight here and there; broken shafts offering narrow bands of sunlight on mountain ridges, or glowing highlights of mountains through thinning clouds.  I stopped at Indian Valley, Bird Creek, and past Beluga Point near McHugh Creek.  While I was not able to capture the alpenglow first light I had hoped for, the scattered clouds and shafts of light provided more than enough drama for any landscape photographer to be happy about.

Being Thankful

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

It seems that everyone wants everyone else to know what they are thankful for at this time of year.  Companies are even using that thankful spirit to promote their product, like Lexar Media having a competition on their Facebook site, asking fans to post what they are thankful for and promising a chance at some free products.

I am usually not one of those people who joins on the bandwagon, trying instead to make it a regular practice to say thanks as needed throughout the year.  But this year, I think it is time to take the time and say what and who I am thankful for, and why.

When I responded to the Lexar “give your thanks” challenge, I stated how thankful I was for wild places in the United States.  Whether national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, or even state or city parks, there are so many places we can go to find solace and renewal, and experience a sense of awe we sometimes feel we left behind in childhood.  I am thankful that I live in a country that was forward-thinking enough to recognize the value in setting aside such places.  How anyone could watch Ken Burns’ “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and not come away with a renewed sense of love for this country is beyond me.  And I am especially thankful for those wild places because of the creative inspiration and opportunities they provide me as a photographer.

I am thankful that I discovered photography.  Granted, it was not an accident.  My paternal grandfather, Carl Leonard Johnson, was a photographer.  While it was not his full-time vocation, it was something he did for enjoyment and the occasional extra dollar for his family, along with owning an appliance store in downtown Stillwater.  My father, Bruce, felt that influence and took up the camera early, running around so much with one in high school that he earned the name “flash cube.”  From the pictures I have seen, his hair cut probably helped that name along (think the style of the late fifties and you get my drift).  My dad joined the Air Force and became a fire control systems electronics expert, but still managed to find time to enjoy his photography.  I remember him using an old medium format camera without a viewfinder; you know the type, viewing your compositions by looking down into the camera and seeing the world in reverse.  He also pursued stop action film making, from growing plants to action with my G.I. Joe.  It was the subtle influences of these two that likely led me to using my first camera, an old Kodak Instamatic X15, and purchasing my first 35mm camera at the BX in the Navy (a Minolta X700) and volunteering to be the ship’s photographer for the U.S.S. Haleakala, while maintaining my regular duties as an Operations Specialist (radar operator).  From there, as they say, it was all down hill.

I am thankful for the artistic expression of those who picked up a camera long before I did.  Many are still around, but some have passed.  I would say my first influences in nature photography were close to me in my home at the time of Minnesota, working as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  Those photographers would be Craig and Nadine Blacklock, as well as Craig’s father Les Blacklock, and Jim Brandenburg.  For the Blacklocks, they gave me the opportunity to find extreme beauty and complexity in the boreal forest.  For Jim Brandenburg, he inspired me to buck conventions, challenge myself, use my photography to promote conservation issues, and once told me in person that I was “tenacious.”  I can never thank Galen Rowell enough, and wish I could in person but he died in a plane crash in 2002 after a visit to Alaska, for challenging me to get out and explore the backcountry with my camera, to seek the extremes of wild places and to combine my passion for writing with my passion for photography.  I must also thank Art Wolfe, for his awe-inspiring passion for using photography to help save the world, and for being an incredibly gracious, funny and generous person to talk to.  I also want to thank Amy Gulick, renowned conservation photographer who produced the award-winning Salmon in the Trees for her incredible support and mentorship in helping me to develop my Bristol Bay project.

Over the years, I have lived in many places, held many hats.  But one of the constants through life is friendship, and those we are fortunate to develop such a bond with.  Many of these friends offered so much, from great times of fun and craziness to foundations of support and encouragement during the challenges in life.  I can also be thankful that, with the advent of such things like that series of tubes known as the Internet and some of its tools like Facebook, it becomes easier to maintain contact with them over the years.  Such great friends include Jeff Volk of Rapid City; the Minnesota friends – Tad & Kimberly Johnson, Alex Neff, Kari & Barry Thoe-Krone, and Andrew VonBank (also a superb photographer and great photo companion); Nick Fucci of Big Fork, Montana (a mighty master of the moose); and a great many friends here in Anchorage, such as Cathy Hart, David Cottrell, Jon Woodman & Cheryl Duda, Joe & Brook Connolly, Jon Pope, and Phil Hedges & Jennifer Tobey.  And I may never have even thought of moving to Anchorage were it not for my friend Ben Hohman, who lives in Aberdeen, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.  My visit to him during law school exposed me to the wonders of living in an urban area on the coast near mountains; I just felt that Seattle was a little too crowded.  Then there are my park service friends, who have helped me to learn and explore America’s wildest national park, Gates of the Arctic: Tracy Pendergrast, Seth McMillan, and Peter Christian.

I can give thanks to my mums for the good cook that I am today.  Yes, I said “mums.”  Mary, my stepmother, starting making me make the family dinner when I was in high school, which helped me to truly learn to cook for myself.  But even before that, my mother, Leslie, exposed me to exotic foods such as carob and homemade pasta, taking the fear out of the unusual and giving me the courage to eat all sorts of strange things on street carts much later in Pusan, South Korea.

But the most thanks I can possibly give is to my wife, Michelle.  I met Michelle six and a half years ago when she wandered into a small gallery I used to have in downtown Anchorage.  A few days later we met for drinks and have been a couple since.  Michelle in so many countless ways challenges me and supports me to be a better person, a better photographer, and a better man.  She shares with me and supports my vision for my photographic future, and increasingly finds ways to surprise me in that area.  She is a wonderful companion in general, laughs at my jokes, and is so wonderful to share the most simple and most elaborate moments with.  From exploring wine country in the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksberg to enjoying a nice, cold margarita in our spacious backyard, she always makes every moment complete.  And, she has also brought to me late in my life the pleasure of remodeling, for we are literally making a new home together as we remodel it room by room.

And I could not sign off without thanking our cats, who make for such wonderful smaller companions and are a heck of a lot easier to manage than human children.

May you think long and hard about people that you can be thankful for, and always find ways to thank them.


“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” Naknek Style

Friday, November 4th, 2011

If you have ever visited any of the Disney theme parks, you would know about “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” (Actually, it only exists now in just the California Disneyland, and has been operational there since 1955.)  It is loosely based on Disney’s adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, namely the segment called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The basic gist of the ride is that you move at high speeds across the countryside, tossing about, crashing into things, and generally moving about in a chaotic way.

I must confess that I never have, at least as far as I can remember, taken advantage of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  I have been to Disneyland twice, Disney World twice (where the ride also existed until 1998), and Tokyo Disneyland twice.  I don’t know why I never rode with Mr. Toad, but I suppose it’s because I never had a connection to the story.  After an experience one day in Naknek this summer, I may have a connection at least to the spirit of the story.

It all began with me taking advantage of the only sunny evening during my week in Naknek by heading down to Leader Creek and looking for photo opportunities.  It was low tide, and there was a row of drift boats sitting in the mud, ostensibly moored until the next high tide could bring them afloat, and the next opener would allow them to head out after sockeye salmon.  I was on the ground at the bows of these boats, taking photos, when a couple of skippers – standing above me on the bows of their boats – called down to me, joking saying that I’d need a model release for those photos.  (Of course, the correct documentation would be a property release, but I chose not to correct them in order to build rapport.)

I told them about my Bristol Bay project, and that I had just come back earlier that day from a few days out on a tender and drift boat in the Ugashik District.  They mentioned that their boats had been featured in the National Geographic article last year about Bristol Bay, and they invited me to join them for the next opener.  Since the opener was at 6:00 a.m., they would be heading out at 2:00 a.m. with the outgoing tide.  That meant, in order for me to get settled into a bunk for the night, I would need to be back at midnight.  I was originally scheduled to leave the next day, but knew I had to take advantage of the offer.  We chatted for a little bit, and then I accepted, leaving with “I’ll see you at midnight.”

When I returned, night had fallen and the nearly full moon was rising above the banks on the far side of the Naknek River.  I received full introductions around; three brothers from Seattle who each owned their own boat: Ben (the N20), Dan (the Curragh), and Nick (the No Limit).  I decide to start on Ben’s boat, a shore boat, the F/V N20.  Ben has owned the boat for four years and has been fishing since he was 17.  The name for his boat is a nod to the old system where the canneries owned the boats (as well as the permits), and christened them with a sequential alpha-numeric name, N1, N2, N3 and so on.  Ben points me out to a bunk they have set aside for me in the bow; its regular occupant, a crewman, has volunteered to sleep on the deck in the main cabin.

I climb into the bunk, much like re-entering the womb, as there are two other bunks tucked into this tiny space inside the bow forward of the main cabin.  In a short while, I fall asleep.  Within a short while, though, I am awakened by the sounds of water lapping against the hull of the boat – the tide is coming in, churning around the boat, lifting it up off the mud, and making it buoyant once again.  The three boats are still tied together, floating out toward the floating dock just off the mouth of Leader Creek.  There is some yelling and chaos, engines start, lines are cast off, and we are on our way down the Naknek River toward open water.

I sleep off an on for the next few hours.  But at some point, we entered open water and choppy seas.  We are motoring straight out, heading to the tender to pick up some ice before proceeding to the location where we will wait to drop buoy for the opener.  The waves are so choppy, I am frequently airborne in my bunk, flopping up and down like a fish out of water.  I glance over at the two other bunks and see that the crewmen are sleeping unaware and unconcerned about the seas.  Slam, slam, slam I go against the bunk.

As the opener approaches, I am out on deck, looking out at the other boats readying for the opener.  It is a crowded area, just beyond the mouth of the Naknek River, with boats maneuvering all around us to ready their buoys for dropping.  The time comes, our buoy goes over, and two hundred fathoms of gill net starts flowing out behind the N20, stretching out as we motor forward.  It is not long before Ben decides it is time to pull the net and pick fish.  As they are pulling, I start to smell something burning.  Not knowing if it is normal for his boat, I keep watching and photographing the crewmen and Ben as they do their thing.  However, shortly after the net is pulled, the engine cuts out.  Ben goes down below and checks things out; we have blown the serpentine belt and we’re not going anywhere for a while.  Ben calls up Dan who happens to be nearby and asks him to swing by and pick me up.

In a short while, the Curragh is in sight and pulling up alongside us.  I packed light for the day – a Lowe Pro Orion AW camera bag and a sleeping bag – so it is easy to toss things over to the Curragh and hop over.  After introductions, we head back out to drop a buoy and continue fishing.  As we drift nets, Dan is constantly maneuvering the keep the net where he wants it – and meanwhile, dozens of other nearby boats are doing the same.  On several occasions, the other boats cut over our outstretched net.  Between the tossing seas and the darting boats, the scene is dizzying.

After a long day of fishing, where we pulled in about 4,000 pounds of sockeye, we start heading into the Naknek River.  Once up the river a little ways, Dan realizes that the tide is going out to quickly to make it to the city dock.  He is going to try to get me to one of the processor docks, but soon, he realizes we won’t make it that far, either.  At one point, we almost got stuck in the mud near the Trident processing facility.  Once free-floating again, Dan approaches a flat boat – a shrimp tender – that is unloading its sockeye catch for the day.  Can they take me on so I can get to the shore? Dan asks.  Sure, comes the response from the tender.  And a minute later, I am standing on the deck of this flat boat, waiting for my chance to hop to shore.  Fortunately, I am wearing my Extra Tuffs – the footwear of choice in the fishing world, if not most of coastal Alaska in the summertime.

Once on shore, I recognize where I am: a couple hundred yards away from a spot on the beach where people I spent time with on a set net a few days before have a small shack.  I look in that direction and see a truck at the shack: they are unloading their own catch of the day and delivering it to the Ocean Beauty truck.  I walk up the beach a ways, and make contact with my new friends, who are more than willing to give me a ride back into town to where I am staying.

Three different boats and a truck in one day.  I got a sense that this was not an unusual experience for life in Naknek, Alaska during the sockeye season.