Gates aerial work

Gates aerial work

Once my pilot and plane got me over to Bettles, it was too late on Wednesday evening to do any shooting.  So Seth, who is a law enforcement ranger and pilot (the two seem to go hand-in-hand in Gates), and I sat down with a map and did some planning.  I wanted to be able to get a good autumn image of the Gates formation, and spend some time in the western areas of the park, particularly the Kobuk River, I had not yet explored.  In four flight sessions, only two of them produced some decent images.

For our first morning, on Thursday, we headed north in hopes of getting some first light on the Gates – Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags.  A thick band of clouds blocked morning light from hitting Frigid Crags, but I think that the sunrise was too far south to actually hit both mountains at first light at this time of year.  Instead, we spent a bit of time shooting around Mount Boreal and Mount Doonerak, both of which were getting some great light.  Dramatic storm clouds and peeking shafts of sunlight provided some really inspiring scenes.  My shutter clicked repeatedly, and I had Seth go back and forth across a few scenes so I could make sure to capture the light and the scenery the way I wanted to.  It was also a bit challenging, as I used my Lee graduated neutral density filters in flight for the first time.  I used the grid lines in my Nikon D300 view finder to help level the horizon in flight.  As the morning grew later, we started our way back toward Bettles, checking out a Dall Sheep population along the southern edge of the border to ensure there had not been any poaching.

That evening, we headed west out across state land to meet up with the beginning of the Kobuk River near Walker Lake in the park.  We followed it wind its way down and west toward its eventual delta at the Hotham Inlet of Kotzebue Sound.  We were not planning on going that far; rather, our destination was a mining community at Dahl Creek, where the park service has a couple of cabins and fuel shed.  Designated as a Wild and Scenic River, it certainly earns its name.  I found it one of the most beautiful rivers in the park, winding back and forth with several braids and sizable gravel bars and islands.  As we headed west, the sun reflected and sparkled across the surface of the river.  Since it is moose hunting season, Seth was also in law enforcement mode, checking out some known moose hunting camps (the Kobuk River sits mostly within the Preserve part of the park, where hunting is permitted).  Along the way, we spotted four bears – the Kobuk has a late chum salmon run – including a sow with cub.

When we landed at Dahl Creek, we had a rude awakening for us at the park service bunkhouse we expected to sleep in for the night.  The keys we brought with us fit in the locks, but would not turn the lock.  We were an hour flight away from a place to stay, no tent with us, and faced with the challenge of finding a place to sleep in the dark (the sun had set forty minutes ago). Fortunately, we found the Alaska State Trooper cabin and were able to stay in it for the night.  (The troopers and park law enforcement frequently collaborate on law enforcement matters of mutual concern, even sharing some facilities, so each officer has a set of keys to the other’s facilities.)  The next morning we were grounded due to fog, so I spent some time photographing the foggy scene and reading Galen Rowell’s “High and Wild.”  When the skies cleared enough, Seth picked up two backcountry rangers who were on patrol on the Kobuk, Greg and Christian, and brought them back to Dahl Creek.

We somehow managed to load up all of us and our gear, making it back to Bettles at about 5:30, with a plan to head back out for an evening flight at 7:30. By then, the clouds had rolled in thickly to the west, cutting off much if not all of the light from hitting the land.  With no significant light falling directly on the mountains, I started thinking about light differently.  Like the previous evening on Walker Lake and the Kobuk, the light was still providing interesting reflections on water bodies.  The brightly reflected water in combination with the deep shadows of the mountains and valleys created stark graphic representations of the land.

The next morning proved very disappointing, with a thick overcast reaching as high as 9,500 feet, well above the tallest mountain in the park, Igikpak.  I captured some images above the clouds and below, and we headed back early to call it a morning.  A couple of hours later, Seth and I, along with Pam Rice, the acting Director of Interpretation for the park, headed back to Coldfoot.  The light and rain gave us a few treats along the way, and we tried one more look at the Gates.  No joy on account of clouds.

The thing with photography is that sometimes things do not go as planned.  But you have to be out there on location, trying to capture the scene in order to have an opportunity to capture anything.  Trips like this can be frustrating, but they provide opportunities still.  I was able to capture things on the Dalton Highway I have been wanting to photograph for the last two years.  I was able to see new parts of the park and imagine future opportunities.  And even with the disappointing weather, I felt I captured some dramatic images that expressed the truly wild and untamed nature of the park.  And, Seth and I had an opportunity to get to work together and plan for future work this coming winter.

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