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Tag Archives: Brooks Range

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

As a young photographer decades ago, I was the beneficiary of the encouragement and generosity of several older photographers.  In 1983, when I was in my mid 20’s, I decided to purchase a 4×5 camera—several photographers I admired were working in large format—and so I started looking for a camera to buy.

I recall looking at an older, small wooden camera with red bellows in the window of a camera store in Lynchburg, Virginia—I was traveling with my parents to visit my sister who was attending Liberty Baptist College—but it was Sunday, and the store wasn’t open.  Lucky for me.  When my old photo instructor and friend, Bob Lowing, discovered I was shopping for a 4×5, he offered to sell me his—a Linholf Technika IV—his daughter was taking dancing lessons, and he needed the money.  He agreed to let me try out the camera, and to pay him the appraised value.   I took the camera to a used camera/repair shop in Philadelphia, and was told the camera was worth $500, the sum I paid for the camera. (Later, when I brought the shutter in for repair, the same person told me the camera was worth much more—I suspect he was trying to purchase the camera from me at a low-ball price when I asked for an appraisal.  When I told my friend that I may have under-paid him for the camera, he laughed, and said it was in good hands.)  My recollection is that the deal also included a few film holders and some other accessories.

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

The Linholf Technika is a “field camera”, a similar design to a collapsible Speed Graphic press camera—when not in use, the camera folds into a compact box.  To use, the front folds out, exposing a rail that the front standard and lens slide out on.  The Linholf is a metal camera—virtually indestructible—in the 33 years I owned the camera, the only servicing I had done to the camera was an occasional shutter clean and adjust.

I didn’t own a car while I lived in Philadelphia, so I would strap a tripod to the rear rack of my bicycle, put the Linholf in a backpack, and ride around the city looking for photographs.  Only in retrospect did it occur to me how ideal this was—I never had to find a parking space—I just got off the bike, set up the tripod, and made the picture.

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

By this point in my photographic career, I’ve owned something like a few dozen cameras—from a key chain digital camera to a 12×20 inch banquet camera—and each camera seems able to make only certain pictures.  The best pictures come when the photographer and the camera learn to work together—sometimes an easier process than others.  But right from my first day in the field with the Linholf, the camera helped me make great pictures–ones I still look at with pride.

The Linholf was my primary camera between 1983 and 1987, when I purchased my first 8×10 camera.  I was goaded into the 8×10 by George Tice (I took a class with him at the New School in 1986) and Michael A Smith (he had a show, I attended the gallery lecture, and decided to buy my own 8×10 rather than purchasing one of his prints—they cost about the same).

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

When my wife and I left New Jersey to spend the summer in Alaska, I decided to leave the 8×10 at home and take the Linholf—we were headed to a remote field camp on the tundra, and I wasn’t sure that bringing along a huge camera was a good idea.  I think it goes under the Ansel Adams rule about cameras—“use the biggest one you can carry.”  There are times when the 8×10 is just too much—the Linholf was the perfect smaller camera.  Which is why the Linholf went with me to the northern Brooks Range in 1996.

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

One issue with any sheet film camera is the problem of loading and unloading film holders–you can do it in the field, but it is a real pain in the butt. In about 2006, I decided to switch to redi-loads–individual sheets of film packaged in cardboard holders–they weren’t cheap, but it eliminated the issue of handling film while traveling.  About 5 years ago, I discovered that redi-loads were no longer available for purchase–another victim of the digital revolution.

A few years ago, my friend Ben Huff and I had a long conversation about Adak, an island that has a recently closed military base on it.   Ben took a couple trips there over the past year, and got a grant to continue his project–I volunteered to join him on his next trip–which we did together in September.  I took along the Linholf and the last 62 sheets of redi-loads.

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

The Linholf was a great camera for Adak–I could carry it on walks around town, the camera was stiff enough to work in the constant wind–and the camera movements were more than adequate for the architectural pictures I wanted to make.  But I have to admit, my eyes aren’t what they used to be–I did a lot of guessing about the focus on the ground glass–and did a lot of the movements based on experience.  The scans I’ve done so far look pretty good, though.

But Adak was the end of the road for my work with the Linholf.  I don’t want to go back to sheet film holders in 4×5–I much prefer the experience of looking at the 8×10 ground glass–I make different pictures with the bigger camera.  So I sent the camera home with Ben.  He has a project or two in mind for the camera, and I’d rather see it in his hands, making new pictures, rather than sitting on my shelf.

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016--Last picture with Linhof

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016–Last picture with Linhof

In all, I made about 2800 images with the Linholf in the 33 years I owned the camera.  Not that many, especially compared to the number of pictures I make with a hand-held digital camera.  But many of those images still hold my interest–perhaps a direct result of the care and time needed to make each picture.  And the steady, comforting quality of working with a great camera, like a friend.

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.