From the first photo on January 6 to the last on December 27, I captured some 15,000 images. The year saw an upgrade in my primary camera, from a Nikon D800 to a Nikon D850. It was about time, too, as my D800 was over five years old. This blog post will cover some highlights of the year. In order to see my full selection of favorite images, visit my 2017 Year in Review gallery.
In early February, I did some aerial photography for the Great Land Trust in the Knik River area. The Great Land Trust raises funds to set aside lands for conservation, with an emphasis on estuaries and wetlands. I have been helping them since 2008 by photographing candidate properties for fundraising, or photographing properties that they have secured as part of documenting their successes. In this case, we ended up photographing four properties – some targets for fundraising, others that have been set aside. While flying over the Palmer Fay Flats State Game Refuge, I was looking down and saw a grove of aspen, coated in hoar frost and alight with the evening sun. Among the many images captured during the flight, this was one of my favorites.
Mushing in Sweden
Later in February, Michelle and I flew to Stockholm, Sweden, to spend a few days before heading up to Slussfors, in the Lapland region. There, we met up with Petter Karlsson Sled Dogs for a three-day backcountry dog mushing trip. After a brief orientation on how to harness and handle our team, we headed out, each with our own team of five dogs. As it turned out, we were heading out into a snow storm that would dump about a half meter of snow in just a couple of days. Beautiful, snowy forests became a regular part of our landscape. But my favorite captured during the trip was that of our guide, Helen, as she worked to tend to our dogs at night in the midst of the windiest part of the storm. To read more about this trip, check out my blog post about the experience.
One of the great things about flying Icelandair between the United States and Europe is the opportunity to build up to a six-day layover in Iceland at no extra cost. So, when planning our trip to Sweden, we built in a four-day layover in Iceland on the way back home. Our arrival day was gorgeous – sunny, clear, cold, and with a fresh snow. Michelle and I had previously been to Iceland for two weeks in the summer, a complete circumnavigation of the entire country. We started in the West Fjords, went around the top, to the east coast, the south, a brief dip up into the Golden Circle, then back to Reykjavik. This time, for a shorter trip, I wanted to return to a region we had visited before with the chance of seeing some things new – the south coast. I picked the south coast specifically because I wanted to be looking north across the landscape to capture aurora borealis. It was a treat to finally get to see what Iceland looks like in the winter, although the winter conditions we started with quickly transitioned to warmer temperatures, cloudy conditions, and rain. One afternoon we thought we would go as far as Jökulsárlón, but, a heavy, wet, and windy blizzard turned us back. We also found some new routes and areas we will want to explore in more detail on a future trip.
Sheldon Mountain House
It is quite humbling to live in a place like Alaska that is on the bucket list of people from around the world. Some Alaskans may take many of our state’s wonders for granted – abundant wildlife, aurora borealis, amazing mountain views. But, I think most of us Alaskans realize how lucky we are, and we are not without our own bucket lists of things we want to see and experience in our own state. For many years, one of my bucket list items was a stay at the Sheldon Mountain House. In early April, Michelle and I and another couple spent a couple of nights there. Read the full details of the experience in my earlier blog post about the trip. My favorite image from the trip was to see on our last morning the gentle pink of alpenglow lighting up the South Buttress and Denali first thing in the morning. I have to admit something a little embarrassing, however. During our three-day, two-night stay at the house, we kept remarking on this really cool mountain we were looking at through the window. It was not until our last day that we noticed the sign above the window: “McKinley View.” Mountains are easy to misidentify when you are looking at them from completely different perspectives. Plus, we were also a lot closer to the mountain than I had ever stayed before, so cut me a little slack.
In early May, I traveled to Seattle to give a couple of presentations about my book, Where Water is Gold. My first presentation was at the new flagship store for Filson, which was quite a treat. Filson was founded to outfit people traveling to Alaska to find their fortunes in the Yukon gold rush. Today, you can buy a variety of rather rugged outdoor clothing (and I mean very solidly-built, meant for actual outdoor use not just to look good), often in a style reminiscent of that era. My second presentation was out at the Suquamish Museum, located a short ferry ride and drive away from downtown Seattle. I had never been out to the Bainbridge Island part of the Seattle area, and rather enjoyed it. I even did a radio interview with “What’s Up Bainbridge” in advance of the event. While out there, I paid a short visit to Olympic National Park to explore Madison Falls. It had been a while since I had been able to explore any of the Olympic rainforest. There is something about waterfalls in a rainforest that is simply irresistible to photograph. When I was there, I was reminded of my first efforts to photograph a waterfall in a rainforest back in 1997, just down the peninsula in the Hoh Rainforest. But, back then, I was shooting film and using a special filter to compensate for the blue hue that all of the moisture in the air would create in the film. Now, a simple click of the white balance setting takes care of that. Or, even if you don’t get the white balance right in the field, as long as you are shooting RAW, you can correct in processing.
Homer and Tutka Bay
In late May, I held a photo workshop out at the Tutka Bay Lodge, across the Kachemak Bay from Homer. I selected the dates to coincide with the lowest tide of the year, and, apparently, one of the lowest in ten years. The goal was to combine rainforest and tide pooling for macro photography and, weather depending, some landscape photos as well. We had great tide-pooling as hoped, lots of new growth in the forest. But I also selected the location for a reason. The Tutka Bay Lodge is owned and operated by one of Alaska’s top chefs, Kirsten Dixon, and the experience at the lodge is simply exquisite. Kirsten’s high standards for local cuisine flow through whomever is in the kitchen, and the service from the staff is incredible. Following the lodge, we stayed overnight in Homer to take advantage of opportunities at the small boat harbor and on the hillside above the town. We experienced clear skies in Homer for the first time in several days, making for great evening light. The next morning, we stopped by the Transfiguration of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik. If you have not been to the Kenai Peninsula and find yourself there one day, this is one of those must-stop places for photography. It is an old, white church perched on a bluff overlooking the Cook Inlet, with views of Mt. Iliamna and Mt. Redoubt in the distance. Surrounded by a cemetery, it is a great photo destination at any time of the year.
Black Hills and Badlands
I was born and raised in the Rapid City, South Dakota area, at the gateway to the Black Hills. I left there in 1985 shortly after graduating high school, going back occasionally to visit. In 2009, I was fortunate enough to be selected to serve as an Artist-in-Residence for Badlands National Park. It was quite a pleasure to return to those home stomping grounds as a photographer.
This year, I returned to those home areas, but for a less pleasant reason. My father passed away on October 1, 2016, but wanted to be interned where he had served must of his Air Force career, back in the Black Hills. When the service was scheduled for his internment at Black Hills National Cemetery, Michelle and I headed down, this being the first time I had taken her to the place where I was born and raised. I showed her around some of the highlights of the Black Hills, from Custer State Park and the Needles Highway to an old abandoned mine I had done much rock-hounding as a kid. Michelle also got to experience ticks for the first time (she was born and raised in Alaska, where we don’t have any yet). We found that despite its attempts, the Black Hills was still not a place to buy wine. But I also learned that my home town of Rapid City had undergone quite an economic reinvigoration, particularly downtown, and I was pleased to see the new face. One of the other passions I had as a kid was spelunking, and we had a taste of that while visiting Wind Cave National Park and enjoying a guided tour within the cave. Even though tripods are not allowed, I was able to take some great handheld images with my Nikon D800 throughout the tour. We offered to be the “caboose” for the tour, holding up the rear to make sure no other tour participants got left behind. Except, the couple in front of us was also taking pictures, and we almost got lost. But that’s another story.
We also took a day trip out to the Badlands, via the south entrance, with a dip into the Pine Ridge Reservation – a place where I had also spent some time as a kid. It was a very hot day by our standards – into the low 90s – so it was just as well that the driving took longer than expected and we only had a couple of hours of sunlight in the park before sunset. After photographing at dusk, we enjoyed a delicious fry bread Indian taco – our best meal of the trip – at the Cedar Pass Lodge.
In mid-June, I spent a couple of days with a client on a custom photo tour, starting with picking her up at the airport at 4:00 a.m. and continuing to the next day. My custom photo tours are designed to cater to specific interests and needs of the client – they tell me what they want to photograph and what skills they want to focus on, and I design an itinerary that meets their needs. I took over this particular photo client from another photographer who could not take the tour due to a severe family medical emergency. So, we explored the Turnagain Arm, the Matanuska Valley, and she went on a flight-seeing tour – all in the first day. That night, we stayed out at the Knik River Lodge. In the morning, after a delicious buffet breakfast at the lodge’s restaurant, Raven’s Perch, we caught a ride with a helicopter from Tanalian Aviation out to do some aerial photography of Knik Glacier and then for a drop-off at the shores of Lake George so we could explore on our own for a couple of hours, capturing icebergs in the lake, calved from nearby Colony Glacier. During our flight over Knik Glacier I learned something I did not think was possible – that a helicopter could hover in a sideways position. I was also very grateful for the strong seatbelts, as we were flying with the door off. After returning to the lodge, we headed back toward Anchorage, first stopping to visit the Eklutna Historical Park to photograph the spirit houses, then continuing back to the city to photograph aircraft landing and taking off at Lake Hood.
Then in July, I spent four days out with some clients at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge for my Katmai Coast Wildlife photo workshop. I chose the dates for this workshop specifically because the salmon were not yet running in this part of the coast. I found during a previous scouting trip to the area that there was a much greater abundance of wildlife images available, especially with bears, without salmon. Otherwise, the bears would be doing little more than staring at the water waiting for fish and occasionally going after a salmon. It is kind of like photographing a baseball game – there are only so many pictures of someone throwing a ball or swinging a bat before you run out of material. Without salmon, the bears are grazing, clamming, relaxing, nursing, strolling the shoreline to explore. There are simply a lot of opportunities. And, there are so many other wildlife opportunities to fill out the experience – hauled out harbor seals, nesting birds, encounters with stray wolves or foxes. On one day we came upon a haulout of approximately twenty harbor seals who were not disturbed by our approach, making it easy to practice technique and provide field instruction while working to capture the perfect image.
In August, Michelle and I headed over to the Big Island to spend time with CJ Kale and Nick Selway of Lava Light Galleries. On the evening we arrived, we got to CJ’s house at about 10:30 p.m. By midnight, CJ and I were on the road, heading over to the other side of the island to hike out in the darkness to photograph the lava. I managed to capture a couple of images of the Milky Way with the glow of the ocean entry and later some good shots of the entry itself when we found a particularly good flow. Later, we checked out turtles at sunset, went down to Waipio Valley another morning, and checked out the blow holes at sunset. On our third morning, Michelle joined us for the trip to the ocean entry, and we came upon a massive 50-foot tall lava fall, dropping down from the mainland to the lava shelf at the ocean entry. Even at hundreds of yards away, we could feel its heat. It was an amazing thing to see. In communication with others, we learned that by early afternoon, the fall had cooled and closed. We were the only ones to see it in the dark. In many ways, photographing the lava flows is a lot like photographing the aurora borealis: you keep late hours, take repeated trips into the field to really capture something fantastic, and almost always see something different every single time.
In early September, I led a group of clients up to Wiseman, Alaska, for my Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Landscapes photo workshop. Starting in Fairbanks, we made a visit to the Aurora Bear Yurt, on a ridge overlooking a vast view to the north. The yurt provides a spacious, warm and comfortable place to talk about gear and settings while waiting for the sky to get dark and the lights to come out. This was the first time integrating the yurt into the workshop, and it turned out to be a perfect way to kick off the workshop. From there, we drove the Dalton Highway to Wiseman, staying at Boreal Lodging. Over the next few days, we stayed up late on clear nights to photograph the aurora in the vicinity of Mount Sukakpak and the Dietrich River, and driving the Dalton Highway between Wiseman and Atigun Pass to explore the changing autumn landscape. There were quite a bit of snowshoe hares running around – in one evening we saw 35 of them in the drive from Atigun Pass back to Wiseman. We also heard wolves on more than one occasion, saw wolf and caribou tracks, and saw a lonely wolf cross the road about a quarter mile ahead of us. It was out of sight before we caught up with its location. It was a magnificent autumn, with hues of gold and red spreading across the Arctic tundra, interrupted by scraggly members of taiga forest.
New England Recon
Michelle and I took about a ten-day trip to visit part of New England, early in the autumn. We learned relatively quickly upon arrival that it would likely not be a good season for fall colors, as many parts of the area had been under drought conditions for over three months. Fall colors need rain. But, it was our first trip to the region, and it was a real treat to see a new part of the country, conduct photo reconnaissance for future trips. And, we always love to sample the local fares. We flew into Boston, and then drove up to Vermont, focusing most of our efforts there in the Green Mountains area. Then, we cut across the state over to New Hampsire, staying in the White Mountains, enjoying a couple of hikes. From there, we headed across Maine over to Bay Harbor, to explore Acadia National Park and the coastal areas to the north after that. Acadia had its over-crowded aspects, but, like many parks, if you get out on the trails and away from the road, the crowds thin considerably. One of our favorite parts of the park was the network of horse buggy trails. Learning about how the park was created, cobbled together from a variety of lands donated by the wealthy for the benefit of the greater public, was quite interesting. The rich of that time certainly had a different vision of their role with regard to the greater public. Then, heading up the coast, our favorite spot was the small town of Corea (pronounced like “Korea”), sampling on delicious, freshly caught lobster at the Wharf Gallery & Grill. Not far from there, we took a hike in an isolated portion of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
I have had the pleasure of photographing the aurora borealis in a wide diversity of locations throughout Alaska, from Kiana and Kotzebue in the Northwest Arctic down to Juneau in the Southeast, in various national parks from Gates of the Arctic and Denali to Katmai. So, I am always looking for an opportunity to explore photographing the aurora in new locations. This fall, I was in Nome for a short trip. While the aurora forecast was very promising, the weather forecast was not. In two nights and two days, the skies were cloudy except for a narrow window of time and for a narrow spot in the sky one morning at around 7:00 a.m. I walked a short way out of town to an old gold dredge, which sat in a perfect spot below the arc of the aurora. Check off another location, another landscape, to my collection of Alaskan aurora images.
A Southwest Weekend
A few months ago, the wife of an old high school friend contacted me via Facebook and said she was planning a surprise 50th birthday party for her husband, and asked if I would be able to come. After a brief chat with Michelle, who was all for a long weekend trip to Las Vegas, we said we would come. We flew into Vegas, staying at our hotel of choice, the Southpoint, which is located off the Strip, has an amazing spa, and a pretty good Tequila bar. The next day, we headed up for an overnight trip to Zion National Park, staying at the lodge within the park. We had enough time for an evening hike out onto the Canyon Overlook Trail, spotting a group of Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep rams along the way. We lost an opportunity for a good look at them due to three neophyte photographers who were chasing them up and away from the trail. We took sunrise around the area of the Checkerboard Mesa, then into town to do some shopping, including a visit to the David West Gallery – well worth the stop if you are in town and want to see some amazing Southwest landscape fine art prints.
And to round out the year, we also spent a few days in the Portland, Oregon, area. We flew into the midst of a snow and ice storm, so most of the things we wanted to see were closed or inaccessible. Fortunately, we were staying at a bed and breakfast in the heart of the Willamette Valley area. Visiting six wineries in two days, and enjoying some amazing cuisine at Tina’s Restaurant in Dundee, was about all we had time to do, along with an afternoon drive up the coast. There are worst things to do with three days in Oregon.
palmer hay flats
bison and storm