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Tag Archives: Alaska

Near Karupa Lake, 1996

A story in the New York Times a few days ago caught my attention—it was about a bear destroying a sound recorder at a remote site in Alaska—at Karupa Lake, in Gates of the Arctic Park.

I spent a week at Karupa Lake in August 1996.  At the time, my wife Rachel was a biologist working for Gates of the Arctic Park.  I accompanied her on the trip as a volunteer, agreeing to help clean up trash around the lake.

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

 

The trash we were cleaning up came from several sources:  the remains of a cabin that local natives used as a hunting and trapping cabin, 5 gallon metal gas cans used by game guides, and (mostly) 55 gallon metal fuel drums, at least some of them left by an oil exploration camp in the late 1940s.  We crushed and stacked the metal for later pickup, and burned the plywood and 2x4s from the cabin.  I recall thinking, while burning the wood, that we were destroying the only fuel within miles—and in doing so, may have deprived some future person of the means of survival.  It felt like our job was to create a sense of “wilderness” in a place that had, in fact, been the site of human activity before.

I remember picking up a 5 gallon square gas can, probably from 50s, that some vole was using to store dried leaves for the winter—like hay in a barn–shaking the leaves on the ground before crushing the can—probably depriving that animal of his carefully collected food source for the winter, thus insuring its death—but my job was to get rid of human debris.

 

Karupa Lake, August 1996

 

Karupa Lake is remote, by any reasonable standard—about 350 miles or so from Fairbanks, on the way to nowhere, on the northern edge of the Brooks range.  The location is beautiful—but only in an Alaskan ordinary way—there is nothing there to attract hikers or backpackers that might justify the several thousand dollar charter flight needed to get there—there are other, more spectacular, more accessible places that can provide a “wilderness experience” for those with the means to pay for it.   On the other hand, it is possible to land a float plane (the way we got there) or a ski plane on the lake—a cheaper (and somewhat quieter) option than a helicopter.

In thinking about the sounds of silence that happen in a place like Karupa Lake—the wind blowing through the leaves and branches of the shrubs—the occasional call of a raven or a hawk, a handful of smaller birds—those are the expected sounds.  But there are also some unexpected sounds—like the clatter of caribou hooves on stone, or the splashing as they cross a shallow river.  But, of course, we think of silence as the absence of sound, or, more to the point, the absence of meaningful sound.  I have experienced, on the tundra, silence so deep that eventually you become aware of an unfamiliar but persistent sound—that of blood flowing through the capillaries of your own ear.  If there are no external sounds, we make our own.

Karupa Lake, August 1996

Of course, achieving silence is possible in places other than a remote wilderness.  It is physically possible to build rooms that absorb all sound, achieving an industrial version of silence.   Of course, the more common way of creating a sense of silence is to create “white noise”—ignorable or comforting sounds loud enough to cover the background noise of our lives.

I once read that most people can keep track of 5 sources of sounds at one time—right now, I’m hearing my son’s annoying music from the next room, the clatter of my own keyboard, the kitchen fan that we always leave on, the sounds of water heating in an electric teapot, and the fan of my computer.  Plus an occasional car moving in the street outside my house.

 

Near Karupa Lake, August 1996

 

Composer John Cage once wrote a piece titled “Four minutes, thirty three seconds”, usually called “four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence” which has been performed in concert halls.   It instructs the musicians to sit and do nothing for the prescribed period of time—the music, of course, being whatever the ambient sounds are.  Of course, the audience as well as the musicians are expected to honor the silence—but, of course, there are sounds—the ventilation system in the hall, the unsuccessful attempt to stifle a cough, the siren from the street outside—those sounds become part of the performance of the piece.  The other part of the performance is whatever is happening inside the heads of both the audience and the musicians sitting in front of them.

But it seems like the definition of silence is becoming one of the absence of industrial human sounds.  What happens when no engines or fans or iPhones can be heard.  So silence is being defined as a quality of “wilderness”—what the earth sounded like before we were here.  In other words, silence is what happened after the bear destroyed the recorder.    Or before it was there.

 

Karupa Lake, August 1996

The Western Landscape is a classic subject for American Photographers ever since the invention of photography—one might even argue that photography invented our vision of the American west, with views by O’Sullivan, Muybridge,  Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams (and many others).

Lee Friedlander has turned his delightful eye on this subject.  In the 2005 epic retrospective book, “Friedlander”, the last section (68 photographs) is devoted to “Landscapes”.  This work seemed to be something of a continuation of “The Desert Seen” (1996) in that iconic views are frequently relegated to the background of photos that seem to feature sharply focused rocks and trees in the foreground.

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

In 2008, Friedlander published “Recent Western Landscapes”—a book I pre-ordered on Amazon, but never received a copy of.  Apparently the book sold out before any copies were shipped to Amazon.  I’ve never managed to find a copy at a reasonable price, so have never held that book in my hands.

So when “Lee Friedlander:  Western Landscapes” was available for pre-order on Amazon in mid-summer, I ordered a copy, fingers firmly crossed.  It arrived a few weeks ago, but I gave it to my wife so she could wrap it as a Christmas gift.  Weighing in at 7 pounds, and 14 X 15 inches, with 189 full sized plates, each reproduced at 12×12 inches, the book feels epic in both scope and size.  The printing can be described only as perfect, in the sense that one cannot imagine that looking at an original silver print could offer more pleasure than the reproductions presented in the book.   (Given my modest means as a collector, purchasing an original Friedlander print is well beyond me, but purchasing a second copy of this book and desecrating the binding with a razor so I can frame and hang at least some of these images may be a temptation I can’t resist.)

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

The book begins with a series of images from Point Lobos—the neighborhood playground of Edward Weston.  There are many other easily recognized places—Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Zion National Park, Arches National Park—as well as numerous images of seemingly anonymous tangled trees.   There are a handful of images from the Canadian Rockies, and one from Mexico.

I must confess one disappointment with the book, albeit a personal one.  My first reading of the book was to look at the pictures, one by one, hoping to find some Alaskan Landscapes.  In “America by Car”, Friedlander included eight images from Alaska, all dated from 2007, so it seemed reasonable to hope that a few of Alaska’s majestic views caught his attention.  I did not see any recognizable views on my first reading, but examination of the captions at the back revealed one image was from Alaska—plate 145.

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

At first glance, this image is, in my humble opinion, one of the least interesting images in the whole book, a disappointment to someone who has spent a significant part of his life attempting to photograph the Alaskan Landscape.  The foreground appears to be a grassy bank—not typical of Alaska–it looks like a road cut—which occupies more than half the frame—and beyond that, some scruffy trees, and a sliver of a river in the distance.  Only after looking at the image for a few minutes did I recognize the view—one I’ve seen many times, though never photographed in the way Friedlander did—it is a view of the Susitna River from a tourist pull-out on the Parks Highway about 130 miles north of Anchorage.  The pull-out was built to provide a view of the south face of Denali, a splendid view when the weather is cooperative, with the braided channels of the Susitna River in the foreground and the mountain in the distance, a view that could be seen—in clear weather—by pivoting ninety degrees to the right from the Friedlander picture, and walking a few hundred feet to the tourist viewing area.

My question is, why did Friedlander include this picture, rather than one of the iconic mountain?  The simple answer, and probably the most likely, is that the mountain was hidden by clouds during the time Friedlander was there—a guess suggested by the clouds that appear in the upper right corner of the frame.  From the “America by Car” images, Friedlander includes two pictures of rain on the windshield of his car—weather typical of late summer.  While, on average, the “mountain is out” one day out of five, there are streaks of bad weather where the mountain might not be out for weeks at a time.

So why did Friedlander include this picture at all?  Is it intended as a snub at Alaska—a “this place is really overrated” statement?  Or is it an admission of defeat—between the weather and the almost exhausting array of possible subjects, he walks away without an iconic frame to include with the others?  Or is this picture an inside joke–a deliberate look away from the iconic view?   Of course, the picture is mute.

There have been multiple books on the American west that don’t include a single image of Alaska—so having one—even boring—picture included is perhaps a way of saying that Alaska is included in his view of the west.  There are at least two other states represented by a single image in this collection—Nevada and Idaho.   Maybe “the West” is too big for any single photographer, or single book.  But he includes two photographs from New York—hopefully at least west of his house.

This is neither a misspelled movie review nor a comment on Japanese comic anti-heroes—rather a reminiscence of a few days I spent in the western brooks range with a small mammal biologist named Dwight Bradshaw, but tagged as “Ratman” due to his work in more southerly climes.

De  Long Mountains, Brooks Range, Alaska, 1989

“Small mammals” is not a common term—one evening during our adventure, a small airplane landed next to our camping site, and a grey, bearded, suspendered man climbed out of the cockpit—a local game guide–and asked, in a less than polite voice what the hell we were doing on his landing strip. Ratman, being the senior member of our group replied “trapping small mammals”. There was a very long pause. “Mice, really” I added. The man harrumphed. “Sure must be easy to pack out,”   he said, before moving on to check his (illegal) stash of supplies cached by the landing strip.  He was right–mice are a lot smaller than moose.

Trapping mice isn’t exactly glamorous—it hardly seems like a job at all—unless you are an exterminator—but mice are the base of the food chain for many animals—a we were in the Brooks range looking for what might be there. Voles (3 species). Shrews (5 species, and all of them covered in their own shit and digesting in their own stomach acids after a few hours). And maybe some lemmings, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the famous TV footage from the 1950’s, when a swarm of lemmings was pushed over a ledge by a bulldozer for a waiting TV cameraman, manufacturing the myth of a species so prolific that it stripped its food source before stampeding into the Arctic ocean.   We set snap traps (aka, mouse traps) and pitfalls (aka, coffee cans buried to the brims so mice would fall in them) in straight lines, baited them with organic peanut butter (which contained DDE, a breakdown product from DDT when we tested it for contaminants) and waited overnight for the mice to find them. In the mornings, we checked the traps, counted the dead, measured them, and stuffed and labeled the best specimens for the Smithsonian.   That took until about 2 in the afternoon.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

So that left the rest of the day for “exploring”. I’d been in Alaska for a season or two, and liked taking little hikes, usually with a camera, not too far from camp—you usually didn’t need to go that far to find something worth looking at, pointing the camera at. And after an hour or two, wandering back to camp for supper and rest.  That was my idea of a little hike.

But Ratman had different ideas of what “exploring” meant. After looking at the topo maps, he’d suggest a route—“that peak looks not too far” he’d say, and we’d head off in that direction.  Once at the peak, another would present itself—not far, not far—just a little higher—and we’d go further. After a while, the sun seemed lower on the horizon—check the time—hell, it’s 11:30 pm, time to head back to camp, in bed by 2AM, exhausted.   Then up at 7AM, to repeat the process. Check the traps, record the data, and then, a little exploring—this time, no so far—but it always turned into a 10 or 12 hour “hike”.

Other memories—one morning, washing the dishes in the creek, I looked up to see what I first took to be a caribou crossing the creek just below me—but no horns—it was a wolf, long legged, far bigger than any dog—it stopped to stare at me for a few seconds before disappearing in the willows. And the last day, a sow grizzly with two cubs wandered up the creek towards our camp—caught our scent—turned away—we snuck back to the tent were Ratman found the bear gun—which gave us courage—we started yelling at the bear to try to drive it away—instead it turned back on us, charged with teeth chattering—we backed up, looking at the ground—it turned and ran off with the cubs.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

Now, looking back, those hikes were some of the most amazing hours of my life. Walking along ridges high above the tree line, surrounded by naked mountains, loose rocks, and clouds. I made some photographs I treasure still.

Snow Drift, Kotzebue, 1989

Snow Drift, Kotzebue, 1989

 

Alaska As the Measure“, live on KickStarter

Richardson Highway, 2005

Richardson Highway, 2005

 

Alaska As the Measure:  Live on KickStarter

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

 

Alaska As The Measure:  a book project–on KickStater now

God knows there are too many web sites out there with too many pictures: I’ve tried to use this blog as a way of discussing photographers and photographs I like, with a bit of added discussion about my own ongoing process of living and photographing. It’s part of my attempt to participate in the conversation of photography, something I can do to hopefully add to others understanding and enjoyment of the art.

 

Alaska as the Measure Ad

Of course, there are other ways to participate in the conversation. I love books of photography—looking at them, buying them—and making them. So far, I’ve managed to publish two books—“Far to the North: Photographs of the Brooks Range” and “Front Street Kotzebue”.   Both of these were relatively small projects, with photographs selected from one place, but easy to sequence into a book.   But I lived in Alaska for 26 years, and made many photographs, including about 5000 with an 8×10 view camera. The question is how to turn them into a book.

Panorama Mountain, 1994

Panorama Mountain, 1994

When I first came to Alaska in 1987, the Ansel Adams boom was still echoing across the landscape, and the smart money in the “art world” was that the black and white natural landscape had “been done”, and a young photographer had better find some other niche to fill. My photographic hero was Robert Adams, who photographed the human landscape, avoiding the National Parks and the monumental landscapes. But the landscape I found myself in, hundreds of miles past the end of the road in northwest Alaska, was wild beyond imagination, and I found myself point my lens at landscapes without any human artifacts, beautiful.

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

 

What does one do with photographs of beautiful natural landscapes? For years, I did not exhibit them or show them to many other people—I put them in boxes and let them age. Then, in 1996, at the suggestion of a gallery director, I sent a group of photographs to Robert Adams. He responded with an encouraging letter, and responded most strongly to the natural landscapes. Eventually he offered to sequence and edit a book of the work.

 

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

“Alaska As the Measure” is the result of his generous offer—a book of photographs that attempt to show the scale and beauty of the Alaskan landscape. I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign, in part to fund the design and printing of the book, but also to show people what I’ve seen. I realize that not everyone is a photographic book collector, but I think this book is worth making—and I’m hoping to find a group of people that help make this book become reality.

 

Tok Cut Off, 1994

Tok Cut Off, 1994

John McPhee wrote a book titled “Coming into the Country” that described his travels to Alaska, and the many people he met there (although some of the people I met complained that he tended to “merge” people, adding stories from one person to one of his main characters—to keep the story lines cleaner—but to the dismay and anger of some of those who met him)…

I’m on precisely the opposite kind of a journey—leaving the country—heading south in an overloaded 1984 camper van—a repeat of a trip I took nearly a year ago—this time a little slower, taking time to stop for at least a few pictures…

I don’t usually blog in real time, but I’m about half way through the trip, with a campsite with Wi-Fi, too tired to drive, waiting for the van to cool off before we try to sleep in it..

Tanana River View, July 27, 2013

Tanana River View, July 27, 2013

 

Alaska Highway, Near the border, July 27, 2013

Alaska Highway, Near the border, July 27, 2013

 

Kulane Lake, Yukon Territory, July 28, 2013

Kulane Lake, Yukon Territory, July 28, 2013

 

Burn, BC, July 29, 2013

Burn, Cassiar Highway,  BC, July 29, 2013

 

Cottonwood River, Cassiar Highway, BC, July 29, 2013

Cottonwood River, Cassiar Highway, BC, July 29, 2013

 

Mountains and Lake, Cassiar Highway, July 30, 2013

Mountains and Lake, Cassiar Highway, July 30, 2013

 

Power Line Construction, Cassiar Highway, July 30, 2013

Power Line Construction, Cassiar Highway, July 30, 2013

 

Hayfield and Mountains, BC, July 30, 2013

Hayfield and Mountains, BC, July 30, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Two days before winter solstice, still stuck in Fairbanks–OK–it’s my own fault–as a photographer and book collector, I’ve amassed all these images on paper–a technology from the 14th century…  It’s taken quite a bit longer than I expected to break free–and the tasks haven’t been made any easier by the weather–a plunge to -47F, a 15 inch blizzard–and the general malaise brought on by the near absence of the sun…

But the light that remains is incredible–I heard a painter recently describe it as “alpenglow”–a term that Wikipedia defines as the glow on mountains to the east when lit by ice crystals high in the atmosphere after sunset–but we have ice crystals right down on the ground here, otherwise known as ice fog–and finally we have cameras capable of capturing that light in a way that feels real…

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