Since discovering Alaska several years ago, I have been mesmerized by its sheer scale, rugged beauty and vast unspoiled wilderness. Alaska has been so captivating that I have been lured back year after year, only to discover new and amazing wonders sprinkled throughout this vast and exotic land. This year was no different. I set out to discover the Arctic, and perhaps photograph auroras and polar bears for the first time.
The first realization that one makes when visiting Alaska is how far away from the mainland it really is. In years past, I travelled from Los Angeles to Anchorage, which takes a little over 5 hours, similar to going from coast-to-coast. This year, however, I flew from Houston to Fairbanks with a total flying time of 8 1/2 hours. Almost the same amount of time that it takes to fly from the West Coast to Europe!
Using Fairbanks as my hub, my first stop was to explore Denali National Park. I initially visited Denali last summer, but it rained continuously throughout my stay. I wondered if Mt. McKinley was a myth, as the Alaska Range remained obscured by clouds, fog and low visibility. After four days, I had managed to shoot only about 100 images, none of which were suitable for publication. Ansel Adams had a similar experience trying to photograph Mt. McKinley in the summer. I guess I should have paid more attention to his writings and not just his images.
I planned this year’s trip to Denali for the fall season, which in Alaska is usually blessed with clear skies and cool but comfortable temperatures. Upon arriving I knew this year’s visit would be entirely different. Warm weather and clear skies welcomed me, while the full bloom of fall colors and fresh snow on the mountains was an unexpected surprise.
The beauty of the tundra in fall colors is almost indescribable. The oranges, reds and yellows are right out of a Van Gogh painting. I expected leafy trees to change colors, but I had forgotten that tundra is simply a forest of miniature trees and bushes. Hidden in this two-foot-tall forest were fresh, sweet, raspberries and blueberries. What a delicious treat during the long afternoons of shooting landscapes of Denali!
After my Denali visit, I set out to explore the interior of Alaska via the Dalton Highway, a 500-mile gravel road that parallels the Alaska Pipeline from Fairbanks to Deadhorse (also known as Prudhoe Bay). The Dalton Highway is the most isolated road in America, best known for it’s starring role in the television reality show “Ice Road Truckers.”
The Haul Road, as the truckers call the Dalton Highway, traverses a beautiful yet desolate stretch of land. There are only two towns in its path, Coldfoot (population 10) and Wiseman (population 11 – 13, depending who you ask). Such remoteness provides beautiful dark night skies for celestial photography, including auroras. During the day, herds of caribou can be seen wandering the hills of the Brooks Range near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while muskox can be found on the plains near the Franklin Bluffs. Other wildlife such as red fox, arctic ground squirrel, grizzly bear, moose and many species of birds decorate the landscape.
Arriving in Deadhorse feels like visiting an isolated colony on another planet. The climate is inhospitable, and the sterility of this oil industry town is not very welcoming. There are only about 25 year-round residents in this human outpost and there are no private residences. Everyone stays in oil industry camps.
People in Deadhorse are there for one reason only – good paying oil jobs. A roustabout (entry level job in the oil industry) can make well over $100,000 per year working in Deadhorse, not including full benefits, travel allowance and all expenses paid. I guess that’s why they call oil “black gold.”
Life in Deadhorse is simple: 12 hours of work followed by 12 hours of sleep, repeat for two weeks, don’t get hurt on the job, and go home for two weeks to spend your hard-earned oil money. Don’t drink too much when you get home and don’t forget to get back to work on time.
The modern airport in Deadhorse served as the launching point for my visit to Barter Island, a two-by-four-mile barrier island frequented by polar bears. The island got its name when the Inupiat natives established it as a trading post in the 19th century.
After a 30 minute bush plane ride, I arrived in the village of Kaktovik, the population center of the Barter Island. There is no air terminal on Kaktovik and no public transportation. An old school bus served as the only connection between the gravel airstrip and the rustic lodge in town (really more like a group of mobile homes connected to each other). Pilots doubled as baggage handlers, and locals assisted in collecting all the tourists, camera gear and luggage.
Because of its remoteness, Inupiat in Kaktovik practice traditional subsistence living, including hunting of caribou and bowhead whales. The town is allowed by law to hunt three whales per year, which provides it’s 239 residents with an inexpensive source of fat and protein for survival. The whale leftovers also benefit the local polar bears.
Polar bears, considered marine mammals, depend on pack ice and seals for survival. Although incredibly gifted swimmers, polar bears are not particularly agile on land making them poor summer hunters. During the warm months, when the pack ice has melted, polar bears are stranded on land and spend much of their time sleeping and conserving energy.
The bears on Barter Island have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Inupiat. As a result of the fall whale hunt, the Inupiat dispose of bones and other tissues not consumed by humans onto a “bone pile.” Bears are able to consume these items, which provides them with a rich source of energy not otherwise present in their environment. For me it was a bit disturbing visiting the bone pile to see bears feeding on the whale leftovers, yet the contrast between life and death made for some dramatic images.
While visiting Kaktovik I was able to count 24 different polar bears, including many first and second year cubs. Research is ongoing to better understand this polar bear community, yet they appear to be healthy and thriving. The Inupiat have also welcomed the polar bears as a source of ecotourism for the island. Perhaps both bears and humans can benefit from this new relationship.
Returning home from such exotic places is always bittersweet for me. While I can’t wait to see my images and recall the adventure to family and friends, I am also left longing for the wildness of Alaska. Its haunting magnificence and grandeur nourish my spirit, while at the same time awakening an existential need for adventure and exploration. It is a sensation unlike any other, and perhaps that sensation is the most profound reason why I continue to return to America’s last frontier.