"Where were you when ...?" Remembering 9/11 in Denali

Mon Sep 11 2017


How many times in our nation’s history do we have to have an event so profound that it is burned into our psyche, into our collective memory? How many times do we have to have events that are recalled by, “Where were you when …?” Pearl Harbor. The assassination of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy. The Challenger Explosion. And, of course, 9/11. That’s two just for my generation, well, at least, that I can remember. King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated while I was alive, but before I can remember.

And while all but one of those events, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, was a deliberate act committed by men who could not exist within the demands of a civil society, they all stood to give us pause, to wonder amongst ourselves who we were as a people, where we were going. They all in one way or another changed the shape of how we believed and perceived our way of life, altered the course and tone of our country. For Pearl Harbor, it was an awakening from economic nightmare and deliverance from an isolationist world view, launching us to ultimate prominence as a world power, not only because of our might but because of our leadership. With the assassinations of the 1960s, it pierced the growing hope of social change and darkened the hearts of those who had come to believe that a new day was upon us. With the Challenger explosion, it dampened our spirit of exploration and stalled – eventually killed – the space shuttle program.

And then, there was 9/11. So many people have used the phrase “post-9/11 world” as if there was something that happened on that day that was so different than any other singular event in our nation’s history. Had there never been a significant terrorist attack on U.S. soil before? Of course there was, in 1995 white anti-government Christian extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols detonated an explosive that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Well, had U.S. soil never been attacked by foreigners before? Of course it had. The British sacked Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, burning the White House. The Japanese attacked Hawaii at Pearl Harbor and invaded Alaska at multiple points on the Aleutian Islands during World War II. Well, how about Islamic terrorists, certainly they had never attacked U.S. interests before, had they? Of course they had, with the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the small boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the embassy bombings in Africa, and on and on.

The point of this blog post is not to explore why this particular attack had the profound impact on U.S. society, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. domestic law enforcement and intelligence that it has. My interest is not in exploring how a group of people involved in a neo-conservative organization called the Project for the New American Century, a group of people who wielded inordinate influence over foreign policy decisions in the White House, asserted in 1998 that there needed to be a “New Pearl Harbor” in order for them to pursue their agenda, and how ignoring a Presidential Daily Briefing on August 6, 2001, which specifically warned President George W. Bush that Osama Bin Laden was planning an attack on the U.S. using aircraft as missiles, led to that “New Pearl Harbor” those people so desperately wanted. So much has happened to this country in the wake of that terrible day, so much unrestrained power and abuse of power, that is seems almost pointless to explore such nuances. I simply want to leave it all behind, leave the expounding to the pundits and historians, and reflect on what I was doing on that day.

I think I was probably in the best place in the world to be on September 11, 2001.

I had risen early that morning in the cabin where I was staying at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, deep within the heart of Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska. I and several other photographers piled into two vans to head to Wonder Lake to capture the sunrise, completely unaware that the attacks had already begun. The lodge where we were staying at that time did not have Internet, television, or a land line. It was out of the range of cellular phone towers. Our only link to the outside world was a fax machine and an intermittently-working satellite phone.

I had been living in Alaska for just over two years, yet this was my first time in Denali. I was standing on the park road at the northern edge of Wonder Lake, spending my first sunrise in the park waiting to photograph a classic moment in Alaska landscape photography – first light on Denali, the highest peak in North America.

Seeing Denali in the morning at Wonder Lake for the first time is amazing. Long before the sun even rises, you get to gaze upon the massive north face of the mountain, standing high above the moraine of the Muldrow Glacier, presenting the tallest rise from foothills to summit of any mountain in the world. The mountain absorbs all the soft pastel colors of pre-sunrise light, reflecting its immense façade on the smooth surface of Wonder Lake. I had seen Denali at sunrise the morning before as we were heading into the park, but from a position 90 miles farther away, and from a very different vantage point, showing both the south and north summits.

When light finally started to fall on Denali on this particular morning, it was muted by clouds to the east. The amazing alpenglow light show that I have later come to enjoy for sunrise on Denali never came to fruition that morning. There was merely a hint of alpenglow on the sides of some adjacent peaks, but never any good light on the mountain itself. Once it was clear that the light had faded for good, we returned to the lodge for breakfast … and for the news of what had happened.

When we approached the side entrance to the lodge to enter the dining room, we were met by a sign posted on the door with bullet points of information: airplanes crashed into World Trade Center in New York, suspected terrorists were responsible. We also learned that other planes had gone down, one at the Pentagon and another one that was suspected to be on its way to the White House. All air travel was suspended. We spent the rest of the day milling about at the lodge, trying to learn more, talking with each other about what had happened. In addition to the group of photographers, there were also some VIPs staying at the lodge: Stephen Root and Wayne Knight. They were stranded because they had planned to fly out of the park via Kantishna Air Service, but would have to wait. Of all the places to be grounded in Alaska, the Denali Backcountry Lodge was pretty darn good. It was certainly better than the many moose or caribou hunters who sat waiting for days and days for an air taxi that never showed, wondering why there was no pickup and whether there was enough food left to wait it out.

That evening we returned to Wonder Lake to some incredible evening light, lenticular clouds, amazing fall colors, and luscious alpenglow. That night, we had a vibrant swirling display of aurora borealis.

It was only two days later when we drove out of the park that we learned that the World Trade Center towers had completely collapsed. We learned about the Korean Air Lines scare that forced evacuations of several tall office buildings in downtown Anchorage. We considered ourselves lucky to be free of the fear and the constant media assault, continually showing the chaos and destruction that fell upon Manhattan, deepening the trauma in our collective experience.

Ten years later, I returned to the Denali Backcountry Lodge, this time as a guest presenter. It was my fifth visit to the lodge since 9/11, my third as a guest presenter. I thought about my first time at the lodge and the monumental events that occurred during my first visit to Denali National Park & Preserve. As I left the lodge and headed back out of the park along the long road, I paused at Wonder Lake to capture the calm, still waters of the lake and the soft pastel blue light bathing Denali. I pondered how wonderful it was that, despite the turmoil that had embroiled our country since 9/11, our mountains majesty still reigned supreme.

Photographs can capture important events like those surrounding the attacks of 9/11 and remind us of the bad and evil in the world. But, fortunately, they can also remind us of the beauty and resilience of nature, and how we can always go back to it to feel at peace and secure.

evening light 9/11
wonder lake evening, 9/11
aurora borealis, 9/11
wonder lake, ten years later