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Tag Archives: Alaska Landscapes

Photographer Robert Adams once wrote that “what disturbs us most about development is not the destruction of some far-off wilderness, but the relentless destruction of those private places near to home where we became, and intend to continue becoming, ourselves.” ACEP (3 of 11)

Living in Alaska for 26 years, I heard, many times, of the impending destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, about to be devoured by the evil oil companies.  Having never set foot on the Arctic Refuge (although my wife spent a summer there, once, a long time ago), I found it hard to get too worked up about that distant wilderness.  I had my own secret places, some of them distant, hundreds of miles beyond the end of the road, some of them much closer to where I lived, where I felt at home.

We moved out of Alaska this past year, sold the house in February.  When Rachel and I talked about the twenty one years we spent there (the longest either of us had ever lived in any place), we agreed that we had developed a grudging respect for the 1970’s tract house.  It was functional, but never our dream home.  There were things we did love about living there, though, including the quiet walks we often took in the nearby woods.

ACEP (6 of 11)

Rachel came back to Alaska to work a summer seasonal job—Ben and I came to visit for a couple weeks, arrived a few days ago—and we took a drive up to the old neighborhood.  It’s changed.  In the past few weeks, the road we lived on has been extended into the small woods at the end of the street—trees cut, a dirt path pressed into the earth—the extension of our street, where new houses will be built.

ACEP (9 of 11)

In many ways, this is neither unexpected, nor a tragedy.  We knew, before we bought our house, that every real estate map showed our road extending through those trees.  We bought in the neighborhood because it was very close to town—now with energy prices higher than ever, it makes sense that people would want to buy houses close to town—and therefore that builders would  eventually accommodate them by completing the development.

ACEP (2 of 11)

But during the 21 years we lived in that neighborhood, that small, quiet birch forest was one of the secret places that sustained me.  Rachel and I, later joined by our Australian Shepherd Suka and our son Ben, took hundreds of walks through those trees—walks often accompanied by conversations about our future, dreams, plans.   There was always something to look at—tracks in the snow, hoarfrost on the high branches, new leaves in the spring, yellow leaves in the fall, bare limbs in fading light of October—always different, but always beautiful and peaceful.

I took a short walk in the woods again a few days ago, late in the evening—it’s a bad bug year in Fairbanks, and I had on a short sleeve shirt, so it would have been an unpleasant walk even if the trees were all still standing—but the stumps, the sawdust, and the powdered silt all seemed to conspire to make the walk especially jarring.  Most of the old pathways through the trees were gone, replaced by a wide swath clear-cut through the forest.  It wasn’t just that some things had been removed and others remained (which was, in fact, true), but that the nature of the place had been profoundly changed.

ACEP (11 of 11)

On one level, it seems pointless to even mention the loss.  This woods was never set aside as a park or recognized in any way as being a special place of beauty.  It was just a piece of land waiting for the housing market to heat up again, enough to justify the cost of finishing the road according to plan.  And I don’t even live in the neighborhood (or the state) anymore—and I have other woods to walk in now—but still, I find myself thinking of what happened as something akin to the death of an old friend.  This woods, which I once knew, has passed on.  Conversations and memories remain, but there will be no new times together.  This walk has ended.

When living in Kotzebue, the joke used to be that “this isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it from here”–and it often felt that way–a place beyond the end of the road, at the end of the north American continent, isolated.  While we lived there, a storm in August 1989 flooded Front Street, destroying the last seaward building along the street, resulting in growing concern about erosion, leading first to placing sandbags and concrete and steel cable mats on the beach, but eventually leading a major effort, now nearly complete, to build a sea wall to protect the town.

New Sea Wall, Front Street, Kotzebue, October 7, 2011

The new sea wall changes the feel of the town–where before the beach along front street was a place where the land and the sea met in a gentle transition, it now feels like the sea is a danger, and the town is pulling back, investing in infrastructure as far away from the sea as possible, building a strong wall to keep the storms at bay.

This morning (November 9, 2011), a storm warning was posted for Western Alaska–including Kotzebue–winds of up to 70 miles per hour, seas of 20 feet, and coastal flooding of 7 to 9 feet–potentially topping the new wall.  This time of year is a bad time for a storm–the sea ice has not yet formed (the ice suppresses the actions of waves), so the waves most likely will smash the shore fast ice, and, depending on the direction of the winds, could drive this ice on shore.   Other villages in Northwest Alaska are also threatened, many of which are less well protected than Kotzebue.   As in all coastal storms, the extent of  damage will most likely depend on the details of the storm–how strong it actually is, the wind direction, and the volume of water driven ashore.

While some argue over the causes of global warming, the data continues to show a long term trend reducing the extent of arctic sea ice, later sea ice formation, and rising sea levels.   Is the sea wall strong enough to protect Kotzebue?  This storm is the first test.

Front Street, October 1990

I missed break-up on the Tanana River near Fairbanks this year—traveling—but the mighty Yukon River, 100 miles to the north, holds its ice longer. When I got a phone call last Friday telling me that the ice was beginning to move at Stevens Village, 27 miles upstream from the Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton, I packed my battered RV, loaded my wife, my son, and our aging dog and headed for the river.

Break-up is an event in Alaska, defining the transition between winter and summer—the intense sun of April and May melts the snow in a rush that lifts the rotting ice on the rivers, sweeping the rivers clean. The rhythm of life changes—winters are cold and dark, but the country is accessible by snowmachine—summers are warm and light, and one can travel along rivers by boat, but mostly the uplands are inaccessible.

When we arrived at the river at about 10 PM in the evening, the ice had already moved some—there was about a half mile of clear water below the bridge—but the ice had stopped moving, not really jammed—just stuck. We walked along the edge of the water, admiring the chunks of stranded ice on the shore, waiting, watching. We went to bed about 1 AM, and awoke in the morning to find the ice in exactly the same places. All day on Saturday, the warm sun shone, and the sound of water dripping from the ice piled along the river banks could be heard. But the ice didn’t move. In late afternoon, we sat by the side of the river, enjoying the warmth, waiting, in silence. My son Ben got a stick and started poking at some of the partially floating ice, eventually starting a slow motion parade of large ice chunks along the river bank. My wife fell asleep, as did the dog. I sat and watched the river, the ice, the sun.

8-5921 Yukon Break-up, May 14, 2011

Break-up feels like an unscheduled holiday, a natural tradition, and like human holidays, much of the power the event holds is due to our memories. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, ice formed on the rivers only during infrequent winter cold snaps, and break-up was not an event. My first break-up was the one I saw in Kotzebue, in June of 1987, a few weeks after coming to Alaska for what we thought was the summer. We’ve managed to stay a bit longer—and break-up feels like the beginning of another year here—a defining moment in the rhythm of this place, a time to both remember and to plan. Or take a nap in the sun.

4-2021 Ice out, Front Street, Kotzebue, June 1987

Early spring in Alaska is defined more by light than by temperature—by mid-March, the daylight is approaching 12 hours—long enough to get outside and do something—while the temperatures remain cold enough for the snow and ice to remain solid.  A daytime temperature of +20 with a low at night of -20 is perfect.   When my wife and I first came to Alaska more than 20 years ago, working for a wildlife refuge in northwest Alaska, spring was the time to get a lot of work done—it was easy to move supplies (lumber and fuel, mostly) across the roadless tundra to our field station, and get ready for the summer.   And after the supplies were in place, we would sometimes have time for a trip to the hot springs—refuge property—a trip of about 150 miles (each way) from our camp ( if you followed the trails between villages) or 90 miles cross country (we were only brave enough to do this our last spring).    The spring travel season ends (tragically) when the temperatures rise to the point the snow melts and the streams flood.

Since moving to Fairbanks, it’s been harder to spend that much time in the country—jobs and kids and the comfort of cars all conspire to keep one close to home—but for years, my wife and her sister have typically insisted on at least a short spring camping trip, just to keep in touch with the country here—a pattern broken in the last few years by health issues—a bad hip for my wife, and back injuries sustained in a car accident by her sister.  But my wife had a hip resurfacing surgery last May that has eliminated her pain, so we decided to try spring camping this year.

It took more time than we expected to dig out the snow-machines and trailer, and to find the necessary boots, gloves, hats, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and tents, but finally we got off.  We headed to a place we’ve gone camping several times before, a few hours drive out of town, where we parked the truck and trailer and set off along a well used trail.  We set up camp at a spot we’d used before (in the summer)—a spot with a long view to the mountains and glaciers to the north.  It was after sunset by the time we arrived, so we set up our tent as quickly as possible, started the stove, and settled in for the night.

It was full moon, and when I left the tent to relieve my aging bladder, the landscape was bright—moon, stars, snow, mountains—and stillness.  No sounds of motors, no lights from cars or planes.   The chill of the air at -20 forced me back to the tent quickly.

Spring Camping

In the morning, the air was cold, and everything in our camp was covered with a thick layer of frost.  The air was still, and the silence of the land remained—so quiet that (if you stay sill long enough) it is possible to hear the sound of blood moving in your own ears.  I sat facing the sun, happy to be alive, knowing this space exists, intact, in its stillness.   The only animal I saw or heard was a single raven, the sound of his wings moving through the air briefly breaking the silence.

In the afternoon, we took a short excursion on the snow machines, letting Ben drive one of the machines by himself for the first time.  He’s 14, taller than his mom, young and strong—and we are coming to realize that while we can do this, but hopefully another generation will be willing to continue the traditions—and hopefully the place will retain its stillness.

A question sometimes posed to me when I show my photographs is:  What is the project you are working on?  Perhaps the best answer I’ve heard was attributed to Bill Eggleston, who said, simply, “life”.

My “project” is slightly smaller:  I’ve been photographing in the Alaska Landscape since my first arrival here in 1987, working mostly with black and white film and large format cameras.  By the time I arrived here, the Ansel Adams wave had crested and broken, and galleries were awash in imitators, most of who were failing to find an audience, and several fellow photographers told me flat out that the natural landscape was a death trap for serious work…

8-4108 Stream and sky, Dalton Highway, July 2005

But I set out to work anyway, stunned by the landscape, the space, and the feeling that I had never seen a place like this before—that all of the National Geographic spreads on Alaska had failed completely to capture even a small fraction of the landscape here.  My own tastes ran more towards Robert Adams than towards Ansel, and I initially resolved to include human artifacts in my pictures, partly to show the damage we’ve done, and partly to try to give the landscape a sense of scale.  But the huge open spaces were both beautiful and common, absolutely true, and I pointed my camera towards them, full of both wonder and fear.   Sometimes I knew that my ambition was bigger than both my skill and the time I had, but all that mattered was the next shot.

8-1194 Cook Inlet, February, 1993

I once described my ambitions to a well known photography critic, and his first question to me was “What if you fail?”—a question that stung like a curse.    Of course I will fail—this place is far bigger than me—more than I could ever do in a lifetime.   But sometimes individual pictures succeed—sometimes groups of pictures work together—maybe I can’t do the whole thing, but sometimes I think my photographs come close to the truth, or at least a truth.

8-1367 Denali Highway, May, 1993

I once told a friend about the words of that critic—he told me “the next time you see that critic, you tell him that I think he’s a shrill old woman.”—and we laughed.   A witch’s curses have power, but a shrill old woman  just hisses in the wind.

The republishing of “The Pond” with its references to Thoreau’s Walden brings back memories of my own obsession with that book, as a kid in high school, trying to find my way off the farm and into some broader understanding of the world.  My childhood was filled with stories from the Bible, and I think I consumed Thoreau as if it were a sacred text, a path through the wilderness.  The message of simplicity resonated with ideas from my own (Mennonite) community, as did the opposition to war and violence in all forms, but his rejection of the institutions of organized religions while retaining a sense of moral authority was reassuring.

Walden Estates, Fairbanks, July 25, 2010

So I must admit that my mind was twisted by a sign posted on the side of a truck (billboards are not permitted by Alaskan law) advertising “Walden Estates” a few miles from my house this summer.  Somehow the idea of Thoreau as a real estate developer had never occurred to me, especially in Alaska, thousands of miles away from the pond.  But the irony didn’t end with the sign—the development itself had been built as temporary, off-base housing for soldiers from a nearby military base, the cookie-cutter houses seemed as far from Thoreau’s cabin built from scraps as one could imagine, and the close quarters and the lack of privacy seem to mock the idea of solitude or wilderness.

Walden Estates, Fairbanks, July 25, 2010

Maybe this only proves the observation recently made by Kieth Richards that in the long run, it’s very difficult not to become a parody of a persona you try to adopt in your youth.  The house I live in isn’t that much different than the houses in Walden Estates, and my own life is far different from the hermit’s solitude Thoreau proposes.  But I still think they should change the name of the development to “Walled-In Estates”.

Walden Estates, Fairbanks, July 25, 2010