Aerial magic in the Brooks Range

Aerial magic in the Brooks Range

As part of my mission for my recent trip to Gates of the Arctic, I did a few sessions of aerial photography with a law enforcement ranger and pilot for the park service, Seth McMillan.  Our aircraft of choice was a Cessna 185 with skiis.  I find photographing in the Cessna 185 very convenient, as I can sit in the back of the plane just behind the pilot and shoot out both windows.  In addition, the windows are flat, unlike the forward windows that are concaved, with the bubble going out to allow the pilot and co-pilot to check above and below to the outside of the plane for obstructions or equipment issues.  While a fine safety feature the concanved windows may be, they tend to distort images seen through them. 

For our first flight after Seth stayed out at the base camp for a night, we headed out toward the Itkillik River watershed, photographing Mount Boreal and Mount Doonerak along the way.  After landing for some photographs in the Itkillik watershed, we headed back toward the “Gates” – Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags – via the headwaters for the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.  I was able to capture images of the Gates from both sides, as well as Zak and the dog team mushing up the North Fork.

In the evening, we headed up the North Fork to the Anaktuvik Pass area via Precipace Valley, then down the Hunt Fork of the John River and back to Bettles.  While I had flown over the Anaktuvik and John River headwaters before, that was during the summer.  Winter brings out so many details in the landscape that, when combined with the smooth and undisturbed silky snow in the lower, flat areas, creates an entirely different world.  I also saw for the first time several prominent peaks in the central area of the park, such as Dalimaloak, Nahtuk and Gunsight Mountains. 

For the final flight the next morning, we headed straight for the Arrigetch Peaks, just off the Alatna River.  Although we got started a little late, some low clouds on the horizon kept the first light from hitting the Peaks until we were arriving.  Again, while I had photgraphed the Arrigetch Peaks on two prior occasions, the impact of the snow and winter’s alpenglow made for a completely different experience.  When done there, we headed over so I could get some closer images of Dalimaloak and Nahtuk.  Then, we finished with the Alatna River so Seth could check for snowmachine trails on the river.

The challenges and joys of aerial photography sometimes can create a bit of an existential quandry.  When passing by a subject at a hundred miles an hour or so, you have to work so furiously and quickly to capture the image and – do so with a level horizon – that you don’t have the time to appreciate it as much as you would from the ground.  Composition and technical decisions like exposure and focal length have to be made very quickly.  But the reward comes from the success of the finished work and the ability to explore the unique perspective of such a vast land from the sky.  But it also, for those times when you have a moment to just explore the ground with your eyes, fosters a deep desire to be on the ground, exploring the interconnected valleys, ridges and drainages to see what small details of the land are missed when passing by on high.

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