Top 16 of 2016

Wed Dec 28 2016

I started and ended the year capturing memorable images close to home, whether down the Turnagain Arm to the southeast of Anchorage or even in my front yard on the Anchorage hillside. In between, I visited Banff National Park in Alberta, Katmai National Park & Preserve, the remote village of Kaktovik on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the big island of Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. Some of it was personal travel, others out with clients on wildlife and landscape photography workshops. So take a moment and join me in this retrospective, and I will share a little bit about the Top 16 of my images in 2016.

Sunrise, Turnagain Arm

As long as I have lived in Anchorage, one of my favorite places to photograph landscapes in the winter following the new year is down the Turnagain Arm. On this one particular morning in January, the skies were clear and the air crisp. For me, clear skies at sunrise are all about how the light paints the land, accents its textures, provides a bit of warmth to the cool tones of winter. A great vantage point for different perspectives and compositions is the mouth of the Twentymile River, within the Chugach National Forest. Among the several images I captured that morning, I have selected an image that shows the sun peeking over the Chugach Mountains and providing accent to frost crystals on the frozen mudflats of the river bed during low tide.

First Light, Canmore

In March, I had the pleasure of making my first visit to the Banff region of Alberta, Canada, to be one of many guests at the wedding of friends Chris and Tamara. Michelle and I elected to spend a week in the area, starting in Canmore and moving a little ways up the road to Banff. We scouted several locations, including up to Jasper National Park. The snow levels were rather low, but there was enough snow to provide accent to the magnificent mountains that comprise this part of the Canadian Rockies. Even though we have five mountain ranges in sight of Anchorage, the character of the Canadian Rockies and their closeness to the road made for quite a different visual experience. The mountains around Banff are so much younger, clustered, jagged and pronounced compared to near Anchorage. I selected for this collection the image of first light gracing some peaks near Canmore, with a reflection on the Bow River.

Dipnetters and Aurora

One of the classic signs of spring on the Turnagain Arm is the return of the hooligan, and the many people who come out to dipnet for them. Also known as eulachon, hooligan are an anadromous fish, meaning they spawn in upstream waters and spend most of their life cycle in the ocean. They return to the Turnagain Arm each year to spawn in the spring, and bring with them many people who desire their oily flesh (which is really tasty smoked, I might add). While dipnetters can sometimes be a bit of a driving hazard in this area (they park in clusters along the road and cross over to the ocean side randomly and without warning), I have always enjoyed watching them and photographing them. On this particular night, I was out in the area to photograph the aurora. A strong forecast and clear skies made for promising conditions. As it turned out, the aurora starting being visible while the sky was still in twilight. After photographing the aurora with scenery looking up the Twentymile Valley, I crossed over to the mouth of the river to photograph the aurora with the waters of the Turnagain Arm. After noticing that someone had their car headlights pointed on the dipnetters, I decided to try to capture them as part of the scene.

Mantis Aurora

Continuing on in the same night as the Dipnetters and Aurora photo, I ventured down Portage Valley, stopping to photograph along the creek. I ended up at Portage Lake, which was fully thawed (a rarity for early May), to stop and photograph an amazing aurora display for several hours. Most of the action was over the lake to the sky in the east, with some to the north. One of the real treats in viewing and photographing the aurora borealis is in observing the many shapes it forms. Over time, you tend to recognize certain patterns, and we are want to make sense of them, define them. There is the "bird" aurora, the "angel" aurora, even a "dragon" aurora. Twice I have viewed and photographed a swirl pattern. But on this Mother's Day morning, I managed to capture a first for me - an aurora that looks like a large, looming preying mantis. So many displays filled the night, and I found myself for the third time I can remember saying to myself, "14mm is simply not enough." But with all of the wonder of that night, I had to select this "mantis" for its place in my Top 16 list.


Ever since I first moved to Anchorage in 1999, I have been exploring the Turnagain Arm in all seasons. I enjoy going back to certain locations year after year, observing and photographing the changes. One of my favorite annual locations is a patch of Arctic lupine that blooms along the tidal zone of the Turnagain Arm near the mouth of the Twentymile River. Because the patch is in the tidal zone, it is affected by the daily fluctuations of low and high tide, and there are channels all throughout the patch where the incoming high tide will fill up right to the point of growth for the lupine. Typically, the patch reaches peak bloom at mid-June. I have been to the patch at times where the tide is in, where the flowers are at peak bloom, where there are clear skies, and where the winds are calm enough to photograph the flowers without a lot of movement. I had never been to the location to photograph when all four of those conditions were present until this year. So much of photography is about timing and luck. Sure, we develop the right skills of composition and exposure, acquire equipment that allows us to capture the type of photos we want to, and we plan and research our locations to understand the timing of sun and moon rising and setting. We look at the right websites to see what the weather is up to, where it is going. But despite all of those skills, equipment and planning, luck in timing is still a huge part of the artistic success. Here, all of the factors that matter came together to help me to capture my favorite photo of this Arctic lupine patch in 16 years. Hence, I named this photo "Convergence."

Family Portrait

I have lived in Alaska long enough to remember it as "Big Game Alaska." But for some time now, it has been known as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). What some people may think of as a game farm, the AWCC is an outdoor facility that provides natural habitat for captive wildlife. It is often a first stop for rescued wildlife like abandoned bear cubs or moose calves, but can also be much more. Recently, it was home to a herd of over a hundred Wood Bison. Transported from Canada, these bison were housed in the AWCC to help them acclimate and prepare for a life in the wilds of Interior Alaska. Alaska used to have an indigenous population of Wood Bison, but the entire population was extirpated in Alaska and declared extinct in 1940. But, a population was found in Canada in 1957. Eventually, a plan was put in place to rebuild the population in Alaska. Due to a cooperative effort that involved state and federal agencies, non-profit conservation organizations, hunting groups and Alaska Native tribes, the majority of the herd was relocated to near the community of Shageluk in the summer of 2015. First, the cows and the calves were flown in crates aboard a military C-130, later, the bulls were transported via barge. It was determined that the barge trip would be better for their nerves; they do, after all, get up to 2,000 pounds, making them the largest land mammal in North America. After most of the herd was relocated, some were left behind at AWCC to maintain a small population for visitors to enjoy. While there with a client to help her practice on wildlife before heading out to capture wildlife in their natural habitat, I came upon a bull and cow pair that were hanging together. Ultimately, the calf that was staying close to them started to move into the frame. I waited until all three were together to capture the shot.

Jagged Ice

I spend some time with a client who wanted, among other things, to have the experience of dog mushing while in Alaska. Given that she was here in the autumn, and we were starting her adventure in the Anchorage area, there was one place to go: Girdwood. Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of working for Tony Robbins as one of his Platinum Partners groups came to Alaska for a five-=day trip. Among their various activities was dog mushing up on Punchbowl Glacier with the assistance of the helicopter fleet of Alpine Air Alaska. Knowing how good of an operation they provided, I elected to work with them again with this client. After spending time with the dog team on the glacier, we flew over to the Colony Glacier area for some aerial photography and a landing on the glacier. At one point, we traversed slowly over the surface of the glacier near it's toe. The many jagged spires in this part of the glacier, allowing me to capture a perspective not normally accessible with fixed wing aircraft - normally what is within my budget for aerial photography.

Curious Kit

In August I teamed up with Alaska Alpine Adventures for my first workshop based in a backcountry wilderness setting. I had worked with them before in the region on fieldwork for my Bristol Bay book, Where Water is Gold. For this excursion, we set up base camp at Crosswinds Lake in the northern part of Katmai National Park & Preserve after flying in on float planes from Port Alsworth on Lake Clark. Unbeknownst to us, our base camp was down at the bottom of a hill with a fox den and three kits. Every time we hiked out to Moraine Creek to photograph brown bears taking advantage of the late Sockeye Salmon run, we would pass near the den. And every time, the kits (a total of three of them) would come out to visit. Over time, they came so close that it was within the minimal focal distance of my lens - as close as about three feet. I would just sit and watch with amusement and wonder. Later, they even started coming down the hill to check out our camp, but we had to shoo them off in order to deter them from getting into trouble.

Bearberry Sun

One evening during my Base Camp Bears workshop in Katmai, a couple of my workshop participants and i decided to hike up a nearby hill for a high vantage point to capture some evening landscapes. Most of our time had been spent photographing bears and the very curious red fox kits near our campsite. It was time to switch things up and capture some landscapes. As we were heading back down toward camp, the sun peeked out from under the clouds. The world around us on the ground was backlit, from the bearberries to the tall grasses. I put the tripod low to the ground to get up close to the backlit red of the bearberries. When people think of Katmai National Park & Preserve, they think mostly of brown bears and maybe, just maybe, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. I enjoyed the opportunity to capture the treeless tundra in this part of the park.

Split Aurora

On two of the evenings during my Base Camp Bears workshop in Katmai, we had some aurora borealis displays. With clear skies, calm winds, and camping on the shore of a lake, there were great opportunities to photograph the displays with some great compositions. On this night, the aurora started as an active green band low on the horizon, dancing and undulating just above the mountains in the distance. After a while, the active band expanded to a diffuse green glow on the horizon. Just when it seemed like the aurora was fizzling out, a large, pale purple arc formed in the sky, connecting the horizon from east to west. A rare form of aurora commonly called a "proton arc," it is not believed to have anything to do with protons, yet scientists really do not know what causes them. For a while, it was just a single, solid strand of purple, then it started to split into a lighter shade and darker shade. It was not active and rather dim to the naked eye, common among proton arcs, requiring a 30-second exposure to capture.

Boys Will Be Boys

Normally when you think of marine mammals, you think of seals, otters, sea lions and whales. When you think of bears, you think of powerful terrestrial mammals. Yet, the polar bear crosses both worlds. Classified as a marine mammal, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a trust species of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (although most other marine mammals are managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service). In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a final rule listing the polar bear population of the Beaufort Sea in Alaska as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They are one of two populations considered "imperiled" in all of the world. The primary reason for their threatened status is the massive loss of sea ice, which is crucial for their ability to hunt their primary prey - seals.

Over the years, the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea have developed a symbiotic relationship with the residents of the Inupiat village of Kaktovik. Located on Barter Island in a sheltered lagoon on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Kaktovik is home to 247 residents, primarily Inupiat Eskimo in heritage. Like all other coastal Inupiat, the people of Kaktovik are whale hunters. Under the authorization of the International Whaling Commission, with direction from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the people of Kaktovik hunt whales in the fall and spring, primarily Bowhead whales. After hauling in the whales and processing the kill, the people of Kaktovik discard bones and some amounts of blubber and skin on a "bone pile" located out on a sand bar in the lagoon. The Beaufort Sea polar bears have learned to come in to feed on the remnants in the bone pile, allowing them to take advantage of a reliable food source that helps them to get nutrients while they wait for the ice to form in late fall. After feeding, many of the male polar bears - related or not- will gather to play. As they are marine mammals, they tend to enjoy playing in the water to take advantage of the buoyancy the salt water provides. Watching them play was such a treat and change from the normal angst associated with male brown bear interactions. At this time of year, when bellies are full, it seems that play is a common occurrence.

Light on Landscape

Denali National Park is known for a few iconic landscape photo locations, from Wonder Lake to Polychrome Pass. Often, these images feature broad vistas of magnificent landscapes. During an autumn trip to Denali National Park this year, I noticed how the light was peeking through the nearly-constant cloud cover to accent the mountains behind the Toklat River rest stop - a frequent stopping point for buses traveling into the park. Using a Nikkor 200-400 lens, I zoomed in to compose a fraction of the mountain to emphasize the texture and detail being accented by the sun. An atypical photo of the park, I enjoy its simplicity and detail.

Home Lights

I have lived in Alaska for 17 years, and have slowly been working on making my way around the state. I have made it to every general region of the state except for the Aleutian Islands. But even for regions I have visited before, there are still many subparts to explore. This fall, I had the chance to visit the Gwitch'n Athabascan village of Fort Yukon. Located above the Arctic Circle on the upper Yukon River near the confluence of the Porcupine River, the community serves as somewhat of a regional hub and the seat for Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments. It is also located near the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to nearly six hundred residents, who spend winters hunting and trapping and summers catching salmon as part of a longstanding way of life. During my visit to Fort Yukon, there also happened to be a strong aurora storm. Oddly enough, my location was too far north to see the multitude of colors that were seen farther south, such as in Fairbanks. Even so, I still had three nights in a row where the aurora danced from dusk until dawn. There were quite a few images from this trip that could have been selected to make my Top 16 list, but I liked the composition of this one in particular, where a road provided a leading line to a cluster of buildings and lights in the background that were part of someone's home. I could imagine that such sights as having the aurora dance overhead were such a common occurrence that it did not excite the locals as much as a visitor like myself.

Virgin Falls

It is amazing how much can hide almost in plain sight. One of the side effects of being a photographer is that you tend to learn to see things more, differently, appreciating details and the way light hits the subject. But in order to see, sometimes you need knowledge. For example, I have mentioned before how much I enjoy photographing the Turnagain Arm. Over the years, I have also ventured in and through the small ski town of Girdwood, on my way to some skiing trails or up a road for a hike. But I learned only this year of a small gem tucked away in one of the neighborhoods of cabins and log homes that is residential Girdwood. Amid the network of temperate rain forest that winds its way along this part of the Chugach Mountains and through town is one of the few waterfalls in the Southcentral region: Virgin Creek Falls. Literally just about a five-minute walk (not even worthy of calling a hike) from a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood, Virgin Creek falls offers the best of what a temperate rain forest has to offer. Spilling out from a hidden spot in the rocks and trees, it drops and flows through a series of cascades on its way down to the Turnagain Arm. The nearby trees are covered with moss - on the bark, hanging from branches, sprawling from tree roots. The sounds and smells of moisture fill the air. Now that I have discovered it, I look forward to visiting it again and again through the seasons in the years to come.

Towering Monument

During a visit out east to our nation's capital, I spend a morning walking between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, exploring the light from dawn through sunrise and early light. This is definitely the best time to photograph the monuments, as the crowds have not yet arrived. Sure, there are other people around, but it is limited to individuals jogging or couples out for an early walk. And particularly if you want to photograph the wall at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, the only time it is possible to photograph without large hordes of people in your way is before and at sunrise.

The first light of sun was hitting the landscape at around the time I was making my way to the Washington Monument. I circled around for a bit, looking for compositions to include the fall colors in the frame with the Monument. Of the images I captured, my favorite was this image with a massive cottonwood tree and its golden leaves, acting as a counterpart to the sky-reaching monument. Using a 14mm lens and getting close to the underside of the tree, I wanted to exaggerate the proportions of the branches, making them seem huge in the face of the 555-foot tall Monument.

Day's End Rest

The Kona side of the big island of Hawaii is known for its incredible sunsets and beaches. Aside from enjoying those for leisure, they are also excellent photo subjects. One of the challenges in photographing sunsets on the western side of the island is the presence of VOG (volcanic smog or haze) due to the prevailing winds that bring volcanic material in the air over from Kilauea. But when the conditions are right, the skies can be amazing. And there are frequently other subjects to combine with the sand and sky, such as palm trees, turtles, holes in lava benches. During previous visits, I worked on the turtle and sunset combination, but never had a combination that I was happy with. Finally, during a visit this year, I captured a few images of a turtle in sunset light that I was happy with. Turtles spend their day out in the water and come back to rest on the sand at the end of the day, making them rather compliant subjects, so long as you are quiet and respectful of their space.

These are but my top 16 favorite images of 2016. If you would like to see more of my favorite images from 2016, visit "2016 - A Year in Pictures" in my Gallery.

sunrise, turnagain arm
first light, canmore
dipnetters and aurora
mantis aurora
family portrait
jagged ice
curious kit
Bearberry sun
split aurora
boys will be boys
light on landscape
home lights
virgin falls
towering monument
day's end rest