A Decade of Discovery

January 7, 2020

For the past several years, I have conducted a year-in-review of my photography. Now, I take a look back at a decade. It was, as the title says, a decade of discovery. But it was also, for me as an artist, a decade of growth. I saw many firsts in my career, and in my experiences as a photographer. I had my first photo displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., published my first book, got my first really good photo of a wild wolf. Two categories of images dominated my photography in this decade – Bristol Bay and the aurora borealis. But, I did not want to fill this selection with aurora images, I wanted it to represent a broad diversity of subjects. I don’t want to tell too much of the story up front, though. Read on.

Wolf Tracks on Ice
2010 - Wolf Tracks on Ice

It was March 2010, and I was in the wilderness of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve with National Park Service Ranger Zak Richter and his nine-dog team. We had set up base camp on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River to prepare for the Park’s winter artist-in-residence. While out exploring the frozen river one day with the dog team (I was sitting in the sled, Zak was driving), we stopped in an area of clear ice to give the dogs a rest and a snack. I wandered around, camera in hand, looking for a composition. I came upon a set of wolf tracks – the wolf had walked through, compacting a thin layer of snow. The wind had blown away the loose snow, leaving the compacted prints clinging to the blue ice.

I later entered the image in the Windland Smith Rice International Awards in the “Environmental Issues” category. My description accompanying the submission was of the tracks as a metaphor for the disappearing wolf in the face of the State of Alaska’s aggressive wolf predator control programs, which was wiping out whole wolf packs in several areas of the state. The submission won the category, leading to its inclusion in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It later won an honorable mention in the Nature’s Best competition celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act.

Commercial fishing crew
2011 - First Toss

This was a tough year to decide my best photo. My principle runner-up was an image that took ten years to capture, Urban Moose. But, in the end, I had to select this image of a commercial fishing crew tossing a buoy to begin laying a drift gillnet during the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. This was also the first fieldwork for what would eventually become my book about the Bristol Bay region, Where Water is Gold (Braided River, 2016).

It all started with my wife Michelle’s work. She knew someone at her office who was from Naknek, and had cousins who worked in the commercial fishing industry in Bristol Bay. With that connection made, I flew out to King Salmon and one of those cousins picked me up to give me a ride to Naknek. That first night I was out on a set net boat at the mouth of the Naknek River, and in bed late at grandmother Violet Willson’s bed and breakfast. The next afternoon, I was on a fishing tender catching a ride down to the Ugashik District to meet up with Everett Thompson and his boat the F/V Chulyen (the Athabascan word for raven). Twelve hours later, I was onboard the Chulyen. I hopped over as they were delivering their catch from the recently-closed opener. The next opener was the next day at 6:00 a.m. The buoy toss was the first toss of the first opener of the first commercial fishing boat I ever set foot on. It is also my top-selling stock image and the back cover photo for my book.

Kukak Delta
2012 - Kukak Bay Delta

In 2012, I conducted three separate flights to capture aerial photography in support of Where Water is Gold. Two flights were piloted by a volunteer pilot with Lighthawk. During a September flight, we flew along the shore of Iliamna Lake, down the Kvichak River, and then over to King Salmon to refuel. From there, we flew out over Katmai National Park & Preserve and over the top of the Novarupta caldera. When we came out to the Katmai coast, I looked down and saw this sprawling river delta below, resplendent with colors of gold, green and blue.

Trying to fill out my captioning information for the image I captured, I researched several sources to determine the name of the river: Google Earth, Google Maps, the Alaska Almanac, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s Anadromous Waters Catalog. I could not find a name for the river, so the image bears the name of the bay that it flows into. When it came time to select among the 28,000 images I captured for my book project to select a cover photo, this one was the easy choice.

Moonrise Over Dock
2013 - Moonrise Over Dock

In mid-June of 2013, I went to spend a few days at the Coray family homestead on Lake Clark as part of the fieldwork for Where Water is Gold. Ann Coray and her husband Steve Kahn lived there full-time and were both writers (who would later agree to write the essay on subsistence for the book). Her brother David Coray is the owner of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.

During my visit, I stayed in the “guest cabin,” which was the original cabin on the homestead where Ann was born in the 1950s. One night, I awoke to the sound of someone rapping on the window. It was 2:00 a.m. Ann’s sister-in-law was outside knocking on the window, and she pointed over her shoulder to the moon rising over the Chigmit Mountains. I quickly arose, got dressed, and ran outside with my camera gear. The day before it had been extremely windy, and now it was calm. The perfect reflection and clarity of the night was exciting, and I spent several minutes capturing the scene from various angles. Over the years, this has been one of my top-selling prints.

Spirits of our Ancestors

2014- "Spirits of our Ancestors"

When I first visited Kotzebue in Alaska’s northwest Arctic, I was exploring with a friend and discovered the cemetery on the hill overlooking the village (called Cemetery Hill by locals). I immediately thought of how great it would be to capture an image of the aurora borealis over the cemetery to illustrate the belief of some Alaska Native people that the northern lights were the spirits of ancestors.

I returned a little bit before sunset to spend time exploring the cemetery and taking photos before and as the sun went down. I always like to photograph cemeteries in Native villages, so I would want to be there anyway. As the colors of dusk still shone in the western sky, and cast golden light on the crosses, the aurora started to come out. Pleased to have the opportunity to fulfill my vision, I went to work. This is my favorite composition from that evening.

Over the years, prints of this image have sold rather well. But I think my favorite long-term experience related to this image is the reaction of those who are from Kotzebue who see it. It seems that almost every fair or show where I have a booth, someone from there or who has family there recognizes the scene and reacts positively to it. The look on their faces as they think of home and family always add value to my own connection to the image.

Wild wolf in grasses
2015 - Curious Wolf

In the summer of 2015, I joined Nick Jans for a visit to the Katmai Wilderness Lodge to help complete fieldwork for the recreation and tourism story of my Bristol Bay book, Where Water is Gold. Nick was writing the essay for that portion of the book, and needed another visit to the lodge for his own writings. I also needed more wildlife images, and this area was stellar for a diversity of wildlife opportunities.

We joined another small group visiting the lodge for a boat ride to a beach and short hike to a sprawling river delta (the unnamed river highlighted in my 2012 selection above). Several large boar brown bears were gathered there, milling about and grazing on grasses. The salmon were not yet running. At some point, someone in the group whispered loudly, “There is a wolf right behind us.” I turned my head, and saw this lone, light-covered wolf standing there, perhaps 30 feet away from us. Slowly, we all turned our heads and cameras to photograph the wolf as he continued to study us. Eventually, he walked a wide arc around us and the boars and continued his way along the coast. It is my best wolf photo to date.

Polar bears fighting in water
2016 - Boys Will Be Boys

In 2014 I drew a professional photographer permit to spend a week driving the road within Denali National Park. During that time, I met renowned polar bear photographer Steve Kaslowski, the photographer behind the book The Last Polar Bear (Braided River 2008). I was familiar with his book, and was pleased to meet him. After encountering him several times in the week, he invited me into his camper for a dinner of Dall sheep steak (which was absolutely delicious). He told me about his polar bear guiding business in Kaktovik, which was a place where I had been wanting to go for some time.

Two years later, I stepped out of a Ravn flight from Fairbanks to Kaktovik and took my first look at the northeastern-most village in Alaska. I was on the edge of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the heart of the most dense polar bear population in all of Alaska. Over the next three days I would spend 24 hours on a boat with Steve and his local boat captain partner Jack, observing and photographing these amazing animals. Limited to approaching no closer than 30 yards by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rules, we kept a safe and comfortable distance as we watched bears feed on whaling remains, rest and walk along the shores of the Bernard Spit, and swim in the waters of Kaktovik Lagoon. Most surprising was the tendency of these bears to play with one another. It is common for sibling bears to play with each other as part of growing up, but to see unrelated bears randomly start wrestling with each other was a surprise and a thrill.

Dog musher checking dog
2017 - Checking the Team

In 2017, Michelle and I each turned 50. We decided to give each other trips for our birthdays. Michelle wanted a road trip, so I designed two options for her: a Pacific Northwest wine trip (we love wine) or a New England fall colors trip. She chose the latter. My choice was to go on a multi-day backcountry dog mushing expedition in Scandanvia. Michelle selected a kennel in the southern Lapland region of Sweden, run by competitive musher Petter Karlsson.

The tour gave us two nights and three days out on the trail in the Vindelfjallen Nature Preserve, Europe’s largest national park. The weather was not what I had hoped for. I had visions of photographing mountain landscapes and the aurora borealis out in the Swedish wilderness. Instead, there were low clouds that dumped a half meter of snow in two days.

During the trip we stayed at dry cabins and were in charge of our own five-dog teams. And even though we took care of our own dogs and shared other chores, our guide Helen always did a final check of all the dogs each night before retiring to bed. I had struggled to capture images I wanted due to the weather, so I decided to see what I could photograph during our last night as she checked the dogs in blowing snow. With only the light of her headlamp to illuminate the scene, I was able to capture something that I felt truly expressed the relationship between musher and dog.

Sandhill cranes in flight with Denali
2018 - Heading South

Every time that Michelle and I have drawn a road lottery permit for Denali National Park & Preserve, we had been fortunate to have clear conditions. This year, as we got closer to Wonder Lake, we stopped for me to photograph a lenticular cloud surrounding the Denali summit. I could hear sandhill cranes somewhere in the sky, but could not see them. It is a common experience when visiting Denali in mid-September to see but not hear the cranes. They typically are flying at high elevations, up to 10,000 feet, as the make the migration south from Alaska’s Interior.

Eventually, I saw the group of cranes and saw that they could potentially fly right in front of the scene I had stopped to photograph. When they did, I had a gleeful moment inside as I clicked the shutter repeatedly to ensure I got just the right framing.

Anchorage skyline at twilight
2019 - Twilight Skyline

There is a particularly rare set of conditions that allows for perfect reflection of the city lights on Cook Inlet. With our extreme tides and the occasional wind, it is rare that the surface is calm enough. And in the winter, the challenge is increased by the presence of sea ice. This is an image that can be captured in the summer, but I have always wanted to photograph it in the winter with snow still on the Chugach Mountains behind the city.

Over the years I did not have the opportunity to visit this location frequently enough to finally be there when the conditions were perfect. My day job prevented me from having the time to do it. But after leaving behind the day job with our purchase of Alaska Photo Treks, I came to visit this location every day as part of our Sunset Photo Safari. I managed to capture this image with calm conditions and long reflections several times in 2019, but this image from late March is my favorite. It was one of several favorite images of the decade that took years to accomplish.

Some Alaska Natives believe that the lights of the aurora borealis are the spirits of those who have passed on before them. When...

Spirits of our Ancestors

Some Alaska Natives believe that the lights of the aurora borealis are the spirits of those who have passed on before them. When I found the cemetery on the hill during my first visit to Kotzebue, I envisioned an image of the aurora borealis that represented that belief. During a later visit, I was able to execute the vision.