Archive for September, 2013

The Making of a Photo: “First Toss”

Friday, September 27th, 2013
The Making of a Photo:

It was a curious chain of events that found me on a drift commercial fishing boat in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay, at the height of the sockeye salmon fishery in 2011.  As I prepared to launch into my Bristol Bay photography project, I was searching for that first connection to introduce me to people in the region.  I was looking to get my foot in the door of Bristol Bay, so to speak. Fortunately, my wife Michelle worked with someone who was the grand daughter of a matriarch of a commercial fishing family – four generations of commercial fishermen going back to before Statehood. In short time, I was on a flight to King Salmon, where a ride awaited to take me to Naknek to meet up with the matriarch herself, Violet Willson. That evening I was out photographing one of her other grand daughters, Rhonda, working her set net with her husband and son.

The next afternoon, I was on the tender Westward on a 13-hour ride down to the Ugashik Bay. As the sun rose just under a band of clouds on the horizon, I caught my first glimpse of the commercial fishing fleet, scattered about on the horizon.  They were in the midst of a sockeye salmon opener, often a limited period of time around six hours where they can catch as much as they can before the opener is done and they move into the river to deliver their catch to a waiting tender.  The Westward was on its way down to relieve another Ocean Beauty tender, which would take its haul of fish back to Naknek and deliver to the cannery.

My purpose in riding the Westward down to Ugashik was to hook up with another one of Violet’s grandchildren, Everett Thompson.  He was the skipper of the F/V Chulyen.  After several boats had delivered their catch to the Westward, I finally caught my first glimpse of the Chulyen as she approached to make her delivery; the tell-tale “No Pebble” flag was flying from her mast, and Everett was at the helm on the pilot house waving to me as he approached. When the Chulyen pulled alongside to deliver her catch, I tossed my personal bag over and jumped over with my camera bag on my back. The next opener was not until 6:00 a.m. the next day, so after the Chulyen delivered her catch, we anchored out in a small bay sheltered from the wind and caught some rest before the next day’s work was upon us.

As the opener approached, the two crewmen got the nets and the buoy ready to go.  Everett maneuvered the Chulyen around to a location where he was confident would bring in a good catch.  He suggested I join him on the pilot house for a higher perspective of the crew and the net drum. So, I pulled out my Nikon D700 and selected my Nikon 12-24 f/4.0 AFS-DX lens.  Given the brightness of the sky compared to the color of the water, I selected a Lee graduated neutral density filter (.09) to balance the exposure.  Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the crewmember to toss out the buoy at the beginning of the opener.  Everett was both driving the boat around to get it in the right position (constantly changing the scene as the sun was coming up about then) and keeping an eye on the clock to make sure his crew did not start setting the net before they legally could.

So, I waited.  All the while, the boat was constantly changing orientation, the swell of the ocean constantly forcing me to readjust my camera to match the ever-changing horizon. And, I had to make sure that the dark line of my GND hard filter matched that of the shifting horizon.  Then, the moment came.  Everett gave the signal to toss the buoy and start casting out the net. The crewman tossed the buoy, and my finger pressed down on the shutter button, while simultaneously making sure that my camera was as level as it could be with the shifting sea and all.

This was the first trip on my fieldwork for the book, my first time out on a drift commercial fishing boat, and my first drift commercial fishing opener.  So in more ways than one, this picture truly is “First Toss.”

Twin Lakes trip

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
Twin Lakes trip

It’s been too long since I have been on a multi-day backcountry trip in Alaska. I’ve been on river floats, backpacking trips, and a kayaking trip.  A couple of decades ago, I was actually a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. But I have never in my life ever been on the client end of a guided backcountry trip.  And I could not have imagined a better first step in being a guiding client than to head out for a trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve with Alaska Alpine Adventures.

The purpose of this particular trip was to highlight backcountry recreation in the Bristol Bay region for fieldwork on my upcoming book, “Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.” While Alaska Alpine Adventures, or AAA as they call themselves, operates several trips in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, I selected their “Twin Lakes Paddle” trip as a good option for my fieldwork. Paddling is always a good thing when you are carrying camera gear into the backcountry, and the itinerary would include options for day hikes in order to explore the landscape.  Finally, the trip would culminate in a visit to the historic Dick Proenneke cabin on Upper Twin Lake.

I joined eleven other clients – people ranging from a pair of carpenters from New Jersey to a couple from Singapore – and one of the company’s founders, Dan Oberlatz, at the Lake & Pen Air office at Merrill Field in Anchorage. After brief introductions, we were split up into two groups and flown out to Port Alsworth, where AAA bases its operations in the Bristol Bay region. On our flight out, we had the chance to see a bull moose moving through the grassy area of the mudflats near the mouth of the Susitna River and a pod of Beluga whales. We met up with the rest of the group in Port Alsworth, headed over to The Farm Lodge, which is where our personal gear was staged to get ready for the flight out to our first base camp.

Getting thirteen people out into the backcountry using small aircraft takes some time, especially if that aircraft is a Cessna 185, which can only take 3-4 passengers plus, gear (plus one plane was dedicated exclusively to gear) at a time.  We flew out with Lake Clark Air, which had dedicated two planes to the effort to get us all out there.  With a half-hour flight one way to our drop off site, it took about three hours to complete the ferrying of people and gear.  We all found our own equipment, spread out across the peninsula we had chosen for a base camp, and selected spots to set up our tents.  While there is always opportunity on trips like this to find some alone time, this is one of the times where you have to be alone – setting up your own personal space out on the trail.  The primary considerations are comfort and view.  You look for ground that is level and free of rocks, padded if possible or otherwise on a level bed of gravel that still provides a somewhat comfortable ground.  The other part of the comfort is finding a spot that catches a good breeze, to drive away the bugs as much as possible. And, if you can, it’s always great to select a spot with a view.  Nothing like opening up the inner zipper and rain fly in the morning and looking out onto a scenic vista.

I find being out in the backcountry to be incredibly relaxing, rewarding, mind-clearing, inspiring – even with all of the work that has to be done in traveling, setting up and striking camp, preparing meals, cleaning up, and collecting water.  Take away all of the work, and you have even more time to take in the experience of being out in the wilderness.  For me, that is truly the wonder of going out into the backcountry on a guided trip.  Sure, it’s great to have someone else do the trip planning and handle the logistics, but taking away the work of cooking and cleaning up; that is really where the magic is. With Alaska Alpine Adventures, not only do they prepare incredible meals on the trip, they prepare their own product line of meals.  Called Adventure Appetites, this gourmet backcontry cuisine is pretty much unlike anything you have ever eaten in the backcountry before.  And when even the worst food can sometimes taste amazing in the backcountry, you can only imagine how great food can taste.

With five days out in the Twin Lakes area, we spent our days moving our way through the Twin Lakes areas on inflatable kayaks, taking day hikes to explore the area and get up high for incredible views, and spending some time alone to take in the wilderness to ourselves. It was right in the middle of an unusually hot summer for Alaska, and for most of the trip, it was sunny and hot.  The timing was perfect to see scores of wildflowers blooming from the lake shore all the way up to 4,500 feet on the alpine slopes above, where even the tiniest flowers towered over and dwarfed our base camp miles below. After one hike, I dragged myself back into camp, hot and sweaty, sore from the hike, and switched into a swimsuit to go take a dip in the lake.  It was a short dip, but I submerged completely into the icy waters and felt completely refreshed.

The diversity of elements to photograph were beyond what I could hope for.  The clear skies made for incredibly rich morning and evening light, casting warm tones on the Chigmit Mountains and the blooming flowers. There was also a surprise abundance of birds around us, from a nesting pair of Arctic terns near our camp to a Bonaparte’s gull to some plovers and a pair of lesser yellow legs. One morning, before the sun came up, I was sitting on the ground, capturing some wildflowers, when I looked up an saw a plover darting about on the ground, circling around me, getting closer and backing off, then getting closer again.  It was clear to me that the plover was guarding a nearby nest, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. I managed to get some tight shots of him as he came really close, then moved away in order to give him some space and reduce his anxiety. And the weather did not stay sunny and clear the whole time, which is good.  One evening, shortly after we had set up a new camp near a creek on the far end of Lower Twin Lakes, a thunderstorm rolled through, adding dramatic clouds and patterns of sunlight to the scene.  Another day, after a full day of clouds, wind and rain, the skies opened up at just the right point in the evening to cast dramatic red and pink hues on the clouds for a brilliant sunset.

After being delayed at one camp site for an extra day, the winds eased up enough for us to make the final paddle across Upper Twin Lake in order to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin. For the carpenters from New Jersey, this was the ultimate purpose of the trip.  Dick Proenneke was dropped off on this site in 1967 with a handful of tools and supplies.  Over the next year, he would build the cabin by hand, cutting, carving and forging every piece himself using basic tools.  He would live alone in the cabin for the next 32 years, hiking extensively in the area, trapping, hunting and fishing, and through it all, taking copious notes of this daily routines and observations. Visiting the site can be very inspiring, and can instill a desire for what may appear to be a simpler life, but, I am sure that Dick’s life in the area was anything but simple.  At the very least, it was a pure life, a life dedicated to developing a relationship with the land, and understanding of the natural world that increasingly becomes impossible to attain in our modern world.

But, trips like this and others in the backcountry can be a good step toward at least maintaining a connection with the natural world, or developing at least some of an understanding of it. As a photographer, trips like this can be incredibly rewarding and rejuvenating.


“You’re Not Pro-Pebble, Are Ya?”

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

I was out in Dillingham in early May to hop on a bow picker and head out to photograph the Togiak herring fishery.  When met by my host, Frank Woods, at the airport, he introduced me to a woman, saying I was working on a book about Bristol Bay.  She was friendly and enthusiastic, but when I handed her my project business card, her expression soured just a little bit and she asked, “You’re not pro-Pebble, are ya?” I was taken back a bit by this inquiry, but she explained that my project website URL made her wonder: I explained to her that no, I was not pro-Pebble, it’s just that I included “Pebble” in the name of the URL in order to note that the story would include a little information about the Pebble conflict.

I was told recently by a friend, also from Dillingham, that she had been trying to get the word out about fundraising for my project, but that people were weary to support it because they were concerned that I leaned in favor of Pebble.  Another person told me last week that the fundraising video on my Kickstarter campaign page was too neutral.

It is true, my project fundraising video is very neutral in tone.  But there is a reason.

Primary above all things, I do not want the focus of the book to be on the potential development of the Pebble Mine. I want to tell three stories about Bristol Bay: commercial fishing, the subsistence way of life, and recreational activities in the region.  But it would be dishonest to tell a story about this region without including some discussion on the thing that is the topic of so much discussion and controversy in the area.  Sure, there are other mineral exploration projects that could produce mines and there is the potential for offshore oil and gas development when the temporary moratorium for the region expires in a few years, but people out here are not talking about those things.  Those other projects are not pitting neighbors and family members against one another.  Those other topics don’t produce community meetings where people are told to leave the kids at home because of the heated, and often profane, arguments that ensue about Pebble.  And none of those other projects seem to really put in the spotlight at center stage a controversy that goes right to the heart of Alaska – the tension between conservation and development of its abundant resources.

In order to tell the story about Bristol Bay in a way that has the most impact, I have to leave my personal opinion about the development of the mine in the background.  Why? Because, to use the “preaching to the choir” analogy, my audience is not the choir, but the people who have come into the church for the first time. The people who live in Bristol Bay and rely on its abundant fish and wildlife to survive already know it’s a wonderful place that must be sustained.  In all my travels, the only people I have met who are either in favor of the mine development are those who currently benefit economically from the mine exploration – that is, they have a job or their spouse has a job, or their company is hired by Pebble to perform services. So my message is not to the people of Bristol Bay, it is to that person from Tennessee who has never been to Alaska or Bristol Bay, or probably has not even heard of Bristol Bay.  I need to introduce that person to a new world, using only true stories, facts and photos to help them appreciate what a wonderful, amazing place it is.

It is also important to me to have as much access to the people of the region that I can in order to tell an honest, comprehensive story about Bristol Bay.  If I only speak to one side, I don’t get the whole story. It is my experience that there is a solid reason why people are for or against the mine, and it often relates directly to their way of life.  Thus, I can miss out on significant aspects of the way of life in the region if I leave out whole segments of the population. And people in certain villages are vary weary of anyone who is rabidly anti- or pro-Pebble.  They have been visited again and again by outsiders who want to know how they feel about Pebble. In the area of Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton, there is a lot of politics and posturing related to the mine.  As one Dena’ina Athabascan elder told me, the mine issue has turned people against each other, and in a way that is contrary to their traditions and beliefs.  When I contacted the Newhalen Tribal Council about coming to the area for a visit, they were pleased to see that I presented my project in a neutral, objective way.

In addition to that, people who are new to a subject are generally turned off by negativity.  They don’t want to hear gloom and doom and rants about evil foreign corporations running amok in Alaska.  They want puppies and bunnies, rainbows and blue skies. Well, not quite, but you get the point.  In an increasingly polarized world, people are increasingly tuning out the advocacy pieces. Generally, the only people who read a “hit” piece are people who already agree with the issue.

So, in my travels, I have tried to seek out as many people as I can to learn about their way of life.  That is my primary goal, to answer the question, “What is your life like out here?” Sometimes I don’t even ask people how they feel about Pebble, but invariably it comes up in conversation.  For one gentleman at fish camp near Nondalton, all I had to do was say my name and that I was a photographer, to which he asked, “Who do you work for?”  I said I worked for no one, and told him that I was doing a book about Bristol Bay.  He proceeded to go on a diatribe against people where were anti-Pebble, saying it was not fair to be against the mine if there is no mine plan.  I refrained from contradicting him and telling him that there was, in fact, a mine plan; rather, I kept trying to ask questions like “So how has your summer been? Have you caught a lot of fish? How have the fish been?” But, to no avail.  I wanted to tell him how my book would touch on the Pebble issue, but he really was not interested in having a discussion. Fortunately, my ride came and told me it was time to go, and I was glad to leave. For the most part, those who are opposed to the mine are the ones who have been willing to talk to me.  I have spoken to the Pebble Partnership on several occasions, and there have been promises of interest and access, but in the end, they have never delivered. In my writings, I have explored various aspects of the region by telling stories about people and ways of life, or exploring various controversies related to the Pebble development.  Again, it is really difficult just to have a conversation out here without it eventually leading to Pebble.

As I have said on more than one occasion, my goal is not to tell an anti-Pebble or pro-Pebble story, but a pro-Bristol Bay story.  Telling a slanted story in favor of or against isn’t interesting; but telling about the way of life and talking about the controversy of the issue and how it is shaping the region; that is interesting to me.  I am not there to argue, debate, or impose my views.  No, I am there to learn. I can’t learn if I impose my will.  And along the way, I have learned many wonderful things and met incredibly generous people.  And it is that learning that I want to keep on doing. To those who are defensive about Pebble and have been hostile to me, I’d still love to talk to you to learn about how your uncle taught you to hunt, how you learned about processing fish from your grandmother, or how you learned what plants are edible and how to prepare them.