Posted by: kerryl29 | July 25, 2022

Return to the Desert: An Introduction

In early February of this year–it seems like a lifetime ago as I write these words–battling a Midwest winter storm that significantly impacted my flight, I flew to Las Vegas, the jumping off point for a week-long photo trip to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona and Death Valley National Park in California. My friend Jason Templin, with whom I had photographed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the fall of 2020 and in the Arizona and Utah deserts in the spring of 2021, dealt with a winter storm of his own (in the Rockies) and drove from his home in Colorado to meet me in Kanab, Utah, where our adventure would begin.

Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Dry Streambed Black & White, Artist Palette, Death Valley National Park, California

This trip was originally planned for the same time period the previous year, but was postponed due to the state of the pandemic.

Most of the trip was spent camping, which proved quite challenging right out of the shoot. The first two full days of photography were spent in different parts of Vermillion Cliffs, and to say that it was cold at night would be an understatement. I’ll get into specifics in a future post, but for now, let’s just say we experienced low temperatures that dipped roughly 20 degrees (F) below freezing.

One of the goals of this trip was to visit “The Wave,” an iconic area in the Coyote Buttes North section of the monument. Visiting this location requires a permit and obtaining one is not an easy feat. It’s theoretically possible, but practically (virtually) impossible to secure a permit well in advance of visiting. We attempted to do this but, as expected, were unsuccessful. But the Bureau of Land Management holds a daily lottery for permits–it’s not quite daily year-round, but I’ll get into that in a later post–and we showed up at Kanab with the hopes of lucking out and winning a permit. (Spoiler alert: we were successful!) We did have a backup plan in case we failed, but in the end, we spent two days at Vermillion Cliffs (one visiting The Wave, the other in the Cottonwood Cove section of Coyote Buttes South). We then made the drive to Death Valley and spent the duration of the trip–parts of five days–there.

Earthshadow, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California
The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Jason had visited both parts of Vermillion Cliffs and Death Valley (briefly) before, but it was my first visit to literally all of the places we went on this trip. As a result, I largely left the itinerary planning to Jason, though I did weigh in on daily decisions from time to time once we were on the ground. With limited time at Vermillion Cliffs–permits were necessary for both locations we visited and those permits were valid for only one specific day each–we had to make the most of our time. There was, obviously, little opportunity to scout locations with the intention of returning later. And while there is a route to reach The Wave from a designated parking area (the hike to/from the Wave is approximately seven miles round trip), there are no trails in Cottonwood Cove, which is formally designated as a wilderness area. So we were quite careful about marking our camping area on my handheld GPS and retaining a sense of how we got from one location to the next. The topography of the area can make moving from point to point challenging (or impossible, in some instances), so care is the order of the day.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Shadowland Black & White, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley was a different story. No permits were required to visit any particular location and we were on the ground long enough to be able to return to certain areas multiple times. We visited Mesquite Flat Dunes, which was just down the road from our campsite at Stovepipe Wells, four different times, for instance. We also photographed twice at Zabriskie Point. And we had ample time to scout during the “bad light” periods of the day.

Additionally, the weather while we were at Death Valley was quite pleasant. After freezing our behinds off at Vermillion Cliffs, the warmth of Death Valley was a nice change. It never became unbearably hot while we were there (though the temperatures during much of our visit were as much as 10 degrees (F) above the seasonal norms (typical highs for that time of the year would be in the mid-70s) and overnight lows during our stay were in the upper 50s to low 60s. As I said, very pleasant.

Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Light & Shadow Black & White, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

The photographic experience was very interesting. I spent more time thinking “abstract” and “black and white” (and sometimes both at the same time) than I ever have on any previous photo excursion, and by a wide margin at at that. The Vermillion Cliffs locations positively screamed “abstract” at virtually every turn. There were some notable exceptions, but they were plainly exceptions; the rule was undeniably abstract subject matter. (The few examples included in the imagery accompanying this post provide decent examples.)

Death Valley was a bit different. There certainly was subject matter that directly inspired abstract imagery. But the feeling I got from Death Valley, pretty much from the moment I first set eyes on it, was “graphic,” at least as much as “abstract.” So a large percentage of the images I made while in Death Valley were done with monochrome conversion very much in mind at the time. That’s not to say that I wasn’t thinking “color” at all while in Death Valley, but I’ve never photographed anywhere over a multi-day period where I was explicitly thinking about black and white renderings as frequently as I did in this park.

Shadow Line, Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Mud Cracks Black & White, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Morning Calm, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

I’ll flesh out these concepts more fully in future installments. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to chronicle this trip using my typical chronological day-by-day approach or if I’m going to organize things using a different theme. Regardless, a thorough revealing of the experience will be undertaken, one way or another. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Slot Intimate, Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California
Sunset, Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California
Posted by: kerryl29 | July 18, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Dance of the Aspens

There’s a road in Jasper National Park–the Celestine Lake Road–that is only open to vehicles seasonally. It’s a one-lane dirt road that is open to alternating traffic and crosses several streams of varying depth…if it sounds like a bit of a challenge…yeah, it pretty much is. The road is accessed off the main highway via the Snaring Road, which crosses the Snaring River (via a bridge!), only a half-mile or so off the main road.

I poked around the Snaring River area both times I visited Jasper, in 2014 and 2015. I think I saw a total of two other people during the time I spent at this location, as the spot isn’t particularly well-known. This “desertion factor” allowed me to take my time when looking for compositions, and that was helpful, because teasing out the images proved difficult.

There are several distinct aspen groves in this area and I explored, and photographed, all of them. But one in particular vexed me. It was a fairly dispersed grouping, of about 15 trunks, and set in a meadow, as opposed to a dense forest. The trees were fronted by grasses and low shrubs, which had already turned color–as had the aspens themselves.

It was mid-morning on a partly sunny day–not a time that I would usually seek to photograph, but the sun had been playing peek-a-boo with the clouds, and that had allowed me the opportunity to photograph some of the more intimate spots I’d discovered at this location, including the image you see immediately below.

Aspen Forest, Celestine Lake Road, Jasper National Park, Alberta

This image, of one of the dense aspen groves along Celestine Lake Road, was made when the sun was behind a cloud. I’d actually fine-tuned the composition while the sun was still out, locked the camera down on the tripod, and waited for a cloud to drift into the path of the sun. But this was all after I’d already taken a look at the previously mentioned more disparate group of aspens. In fact, at one point while I was waiting for that cloud, I walked a few hundred feet back up the road to take another look at the first grouping, before trotting back to the tripod when a cloud moved into place.

After making the image above, I returned, with all of my gear, to the first aspen grouping. I literally walked all the way around the entire assemblage, several times, with camera in hand. Something about this setting was producing a feeling inside me that I couldn’t quite identify, but finally, as I was staring at the scene from a particular spot, it hit me: it felt as though the aspens were dancing. The shape and placement of the trunks…the bright colors, heightened, somewhat ironically, when the sun popped out from behind the clouds. The effect was enhanced on the rare occasion when the breeze picked up and the aspen leaves fluttered while the trunks swayed, ever so slightly.

Once the theme was established in my mind, I knew what I needed to emphasize and went about finding the spot most conducive to doing so. When I felt that I’d found it, after some additional time spent looking, I set up and produced the image you see below:

Dance of the Aspens, Celestine Lake Road, Jasper National Park, Alberta

For a look at a larger version of this image, click here. Upon arrival, click anywhere on the image to display the image with its proper dimensions.

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 11, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Days 16 and 17: The Chugach and Beyond

I left off the narrative of the first part of Day 16 with a lengthy description of the events at South Fork Falls, including my descent into the abyss in pursuit of my missing lens hood. After that adventure was complete, Ellen and I drove back to Hatcher Pass. We still had a few hours of daylight and, though there would clearly be no sunset this evening (it had been cloudy all day long, with no change in sight), we tried to make the most of it.

We returned to Summit Lake–the third time we’d been up there–with the hope that that there would be reflections. This wasn’t a meritless idea; in addition to being cloudy, it had been quite calm all day long. But when we arrived at the lake, it was completely rippled. The breeze, such as it was, was almost undetectable, but at this particularly location, there was enough of it to wipe out any chance of reflections. I was beginning to doubt the decision I had made back on Day 14, when, faced with the decision about whether to photograph the calm Summit Lake or the pass at sunset, I had chosen the latter. My theory at the time was that we were more likely to have another opportunity to photograph the lake under calm conditions than have the interesting light on the pass again. While the second part of that equation was bearing out, the first part was not; it was starting to appear as an either/or proposition. (Foreshadowing?)

Foiled at Summit Lake, we retreated to a lower elevation and returned to the Little Sustina River, but at a different access point than the one we’d photographed at on Day 14. We spent about an hour at this location and I spent most of that time laser-focused on a cluster of large boulders in the middle of the river. I alternated between normal to short-telephoto focal lengths with my 24-70 mm lens and longer telephoto images with my 80-400 mm adapted lens.

Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Little Sustina River Black & White, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

I broke out the ND filters while we were there, and experimented quite a bit with a variety of shutter speeds.

Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Little Sustina River Black & White, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Little Sustina River Black & White, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

On the drive back to the cabin, we passed a location that had caught my attention several times since we’d been in the area. Visible from the road to/from Hatcher Pass, I had noticed a birch grove, surrounded by colorful foliage, right next to a parking lot for a cannabis store with the clever (?) name “Hatcher Grass.” While the elements of the scene had appealed to me, I couldn’t tell from the road whether a good composition lay in wait or not. But there was more than enough to warrant a closer look. Every time we’d passed this location earlier on the trip, something had been less than ideal about the conditions: sun, wind or both, not to mention we were always on the way to another photo destination. But on this occasion, at the end of a cloudy, calm day, and with only one more morning (of uncertain conditions) left, it was now or never.

While the sign on the windowless building flashed “open,” the parking lot was completely empty. So, we pulled in and as we approached the birch grove, I could immediately tell that this was going to be a great photo opportunity.

The birch trunks were almost perfectly spaced, and the color was exceptional. The light was soft and the wind was non-existent (important, because focus stacking was going to be a must and shutter speeds were growing long as sunset time crept ever closer).

Birch Grove, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

I managed to produce five images of the scene before light levels dropped to the point where executing the necessary series of frames to complete a front-to-back stack took 10 or more seconds.

Birch Grove, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Birch Grove, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Birch Grove, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Birch Grove, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

That brought Day 16 to an end–and in a very satisfying manner, I must say.

We had one more day in Alaska. At the very end of Day 17, I had a red eye flight back to Chicago via Denver. But since that flight wasn’t due to take off until almost midnight, we had most of the day to photograph.

First thing in the morning, we decided to take one more crack at Summit Lake, in the off chance it would be calm up at the top of the pass. There was no wind when we left the cabin, but that had been the case the previous day as well and up at the lake there were no reflections to be had. I fully expected the same on this morning and, indeed, when we reached Summit Lake, it was rippled…again. There was scarcely a breath of wind to be felt (again), but it was now clear that Summit Lake reflections were very much the exception rather than the rule.

As we poked around the immediate area, to see if there was anything we wanted to photograph that we hadn’t already experienced in our time at Hatcher Pass, I looked back at the lake and noticed that the water surface was starting to settle. Reflections, in fact, were already visible in the portion of the lake abutting the mountainside. Might it clear completely? I wasn’t sure but I decided that, if it did, I would be ready. I grabbed my tripod and the camera with the 24-70 mm lens attached and set up near a stand of fireweed. Sure enough, the photo gods smiled on me and the lake surface settled to a mirror-like state.

Once the lake settled, it stayed that way for the better part of 10 minutes, long enough for me to pick out several more abstract compositions while the reflections were at their best.

Highly satisfied that I’d had the opportunity to photograph the kaleidoscope-like scene at Summit Lake, particularly given that I had no such expectations, we made our way back the way we had come. But we noticed a marmot perched on a rock, not far off the road, so we stopped. And when we did so, we noticed another marmot, on the ground.

And before we knew it, an arctic ground squirrel appeared…

We finally took advantage of the opportunity that had caused us to stop in the first place. The marmot perched on the rock seemed utterly unperturbed by our presence; he never left his rock.

We had to go back to the cabin and pack up, then make the drive to the Anchorage area. We decided to explore a couple of sports in Chugach State Park located southeast of Anchorage. These areas are located off the Seward Highway, adjacent to the Turnagain Arm, a Pacific Ocean inlet. We photographed along McHugh Creek, which had fewer access points than we expected. It wasn’t the most exciting venue of this long photo trip, but we made the best of it, and came away with a few memorable images.

McHugh Creek, Chugach State Park, Alaska
McHugh Creek Black & White, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Devil’s Club, McHugh Creek, Chugach State Park, Alaska
McHugh Creek Black & White, Chugach State Park, Alaska

And with that, the Alaska photo trip came to an end. I hope you enjoyed taking it with us, albeit vicariously. There will be one more blog entry in this series, a retrospective that will give you the opportunity to hear some of Ellen’s thoughts on the experience. That will appear either next week or the week after.

The 16th–and final full–day of last year’s trip to Alaska was a fascinating one, in part because so many unexpected things happened. With a cloudy forecast in mind, we had decided the previous evening that we would head to Thunder Bird Falls, in Chugach State Park, about 45 minutes south of where we were staying, first thing in the morning. We left shortly after first light and, though Thunder Bird Falls is a very popular hike, found a completely deserted parking lot when we arrived at the trailhead.

The hike to the Thunder Bird Falls viewing platform is a fairly easy one–roughly a mile out and a mile back on a trail with relatively little elevation change. Actually, the toughest part of the hike is immediately apparent, as the trail runs up a fairly steep incline. There’s not much of difficulty from that point on.

I think it’s fair to say that Ellen and I both found the Thunder Bird Falls Trail to be among our most productive photo locations of the entire trip. I think it’s also fair to say that we didn’t expect that to be the case. Very shortly after we reached the top of the hill near the start of the trailhead, we discovered an interesting spot to shoot in the forest…and we never really stopped finding compelling locations after that. In fact, we spent so much time photographing at the spots we discovered that other people were returning to the parking lot to leave before we’d made it halfway to the falls. Remember, we were the first people on the trail!

While fall color in this part of Alaska was a ways from being at peak, there were pockets where the color was excellent. We were aided by dead calm conditions. This was critical, as there was much focus stacking to be done and, since it was cloudy and there was a fairly thick canopy along the trail, it was fairly dark. All of this meant that shutter speeds were long. Regardless, it was absolutely remarkable how many tantalizing scenes we found, ranging from closeup to intimate.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Many of these spots were literally right alongside the trail. A few of them required meandering into the woods a bit.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

We rarely went more than 100 feet down the trail before spotting something else that piqued our interest.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Of all the spots we visited on this trip, it was this trail where I most missed having my macro lens (which I was unable to bring due to space/weight limitations when packing).

Devil’s Club, Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Teasing out compositions in settings such as this is always a fascinating, and usually satisfying, adventure. And I’ve always felt that my experience photographing the landscape of the American Midwest has stood me in good stead when, located in other regions, I find myself face-to-face with the familiar tight confines of woodland settings.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

When I was reviewing images for this post, I was reminded just how many different spots we photographed along a trail just a mile long.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail Black & White, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

At some point we more or less decided that we had to move along or we’d never get to the falls…so we made a final few images in the forest before heading to the trail’s end.

Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska
Thunder Bird Falls Trail, Chugach State Park, Alaska

There’s a certain irony to the fact that the experience of photographing Thunder Bird Falls itself was a tremendous anticlimax. The waterfall itself is pretty impressive, but the shooting location leaves very few options for photographing it. Basically, you have a head on shot from some distance…and that’s about it. I very nearly didn’t even bother photographing the waterfall, but I grudgingly made one image, which appears below.

Thunder Bird Falls, Chugach State Park, Alaska

On our way back, we took a side trail which took us down into the gorge where the South Fork of the Eagle River–runoff from Thunder Bird Falls–made for a nice setting for some stream photography.

South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Chugach State Park, Alaska

While we were down at this spot, a couple of odd things took place. The first was when a girl–probably 12 years old or thereabouts–decided to shimmy out on the log in the above frame, which spanned the water, following a bit of an “I’ll show you” episode with her younger brother. As I was already set up astride the log preparing to photograph the image that you see, I wasn’t particularly happy about this. Kids will be kids, but I really thought that the parents–who were right there and saw what I was doing–would intervene. But they didn’t. Rather than causing a scene, I kept my mouth shut and waited them out. The girl got about halfway across the log, and then decided she didn’t want to go the rest of the way. She was seated on the log and facing the (now) wrong direction. The parents of this kid seemed, to me, pretty unconcerned, even when the she had a mild panic attack while still out on the log. In fairness, she ultimately did manage to make it back without incident and I was finally able to produce this photograph.

The other oddity was when a couple, wearing tennis shoes no less, came straight down the side of what was a 30-degree slope from the trail above to the river bank. Ellen and I were first alerted to this when we started seeing small rocks tumble down from above for no apparent reason. We couldn’t understand why they were doing this when a trail, with a wooden staircase, brought hikers down safely. Apparently these folks missed the signs…and the trail itself, which wasn’t hidden in the least.

We wrapped up at the river and made our way back to the car. It was mid-day by now, and still cloudy and calm. We had learned of another waterfall on the same fork of the Eagle River, but in a very different area, and found directions to get there (with the aid of Google Maps). This waterfall–known as South Fork Falls or Barbara Falls, take your pick–was accessible via a public trail that abutted private property. We made our way to the trailhead after a drive of 30-odd minutes, and then walked the 2/3 of a mile or thereabouts to an overlook. It was an impressive waterfall and, though again we were limited to the viewing area, we were much closer to the falls, which were more amenable to a variety of compositions.

South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Abstract Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls Abstract Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

While we were photographing from the overlook, we noticed a trail that emerged from the far side of the river. It appeared that it would allow a lower vantage point from which to view the falls and we decided that we’d check it out when we were done at the overlook and returned to the trailhead.

And then, it happened. I was trying to set up a shot, using my camera with the 24-70 mm lens, of the falls. I had the camera, with the lens mounted, slung around my neck and determined that I needed to move my tripod several feet to the left of where I was standing, and when I picked up the tripod, one of the extended legs brushed against the hood of the lens. The hood for this lens is…let’s just say it’s poorly designed. There’s no mechanism to allow the hood to lock into place. So, when the the tripod leg brushed against it, the hood became detached from the lens and popped up into the air. I hadn’t been expecting this, but I did try to catch the hood as it flew through the air. But I couldn’t reach it, and it disappeared into the chasm below us.

I was…not happy. I peered into the chasm but couldn’t spot the hood. I knew, based on the way things were laid out, that there was no way the hood had reached the river–it was too far away, and there was far too much debris in the chasm below us. I didn’t know if I could safely descend into the chasm or not, but I certainly wasn’t going to try if I couldn’t spot the hood. I wasn’t going to go down there to conduct a search. I wasn’t even sure that I’d go down there if I could spot the hood, because I couldn’t easily see a safe way to descend, but without spotting the hood the point was moot. And, though I looked and looked, I couldn’t spot it.

But then Ellen said “I see it!”

“Where?” I asked. And she described the spot where she was looking, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. We even mounted my telephoto lens on the tripod and Ellen dialed in the approximate spot where she saw the hood, but I still couldn’t find it.

What followed was likely stupid, in an epic sense, on my part but…I hate losing things…and Ellen could see the lens. I decided that I would drop down into the chasm and have Ellen direct me to the spot. Surely, with her help, I’d be able to spot it, then determine if I could get to the spot to retrieve it. In the back of my mind there were questions about whether I’d be able to extract myself from the chasm if I went in, but I suppressed them.

So, I found a spot to climb down. I was stepping on steep dirt slope or, in some cases, pieces of debris, mainly tree trunks and branches. Communication with Ellen had to be done at least as much with gestures as by voice, since the roar of the relatively nearby falls made it difficult to hear one another. Ellen managed to convey to me where she saw the hood. I was now significantly closer to that spot, but I still couldn’t see the hood. Finally, I decided that I would have to make my way to the location that Ellen was indicating, and so I did, carefully. I wasn’t sure that my footing would hold. Worst case, I figured I’d slide down to the shallows of the river below, but it might involve a bit of tumble to do so. My life, I figured, was not in danger, but there was a chance of injury.

Gradually I made my way over to the directed location…no hood. Ellen kept pointing to a spot and ultimately I determined, what she had thought was the hood was actually a rock. I sighed. I’d come down here for nothing. And now I had to figure out how to climb out of this hole. That was going to be a lot more difficult than coming down had been. Gravity, and all that.

So I turned around in preparation to retrace my steps, in an attempt to climb out where I’d climbed in and…I spotted the hood. Son of a bitch! What were the odds? It was about 30 feet from where I stood, up against the slope. I glanced up at the overlook; given where the hood was, it would have been impossible to see it from the overlook. There was no way we ever could have seen it…without climbing down in the chasm.

I gingerly made my way in the direction of the hood; there was no way I was coming back without it now. What’s the saying? I was going to retrieve that hood or die trying. (Maybe literally.) When I got close enough to reach it, I snagged it with my right hand, then put my hand through the center like a bracelet. This would allow me to retain use of both of my arms, which I knew would be necessary to climb out of the chasm. Then I made my way back to the access point. The tough part came as I approached the lip of the chasm. It was steep, so the footing was poor. And, ultimately, I had to stand on pieces of debris, which weren’t entirely stable. But at some point, I could tell I’d reached a tipping point, and I was able to lift myself out.

I made the short walk back to the overlook, no worse for wear other than being a bit dirty, and told Ellen what had happened–with a focus on the actual location of the hood. It all makes for a good story.

We returned to the trailhead and, previous adventures notwithstanding, I decided to make the riverside hike and see if I could photograph the waterfall from ground level. Ellen elected not to come, but told me to take my time. So, I hiked along the creek. The footing was a bit iffy in a few spots, but never really dangerous. I noted several places near the river that I thought might make interesting shooting spots, but decided to wait until the return trip on this out-and-back trail to really examine them closely.

Finally, I reached a bend in the river, rounded a corner to my right, and found myself staring at South Fork Falls, approximately 250 feet in front of me. The spray was pretty intense, and nearly unrelenting. I left my backpack on the ground, around the corner and out of the mist, and made my forward with just my camera and 24-70 mm lens (including the hood!), tripod and a cleaning cloth (in my pocket). I knew that I’d have to mop the filter on the front of the lens repeatedly and that the lens cap would need to stay in place whenever I wasn’t actively sizing up or photographing the scene through the viewfinder. Ultimately, I made two images of the falls.

South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Falls, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

On the way back to the trailhead, I stopped a few times for image-making opportunities.

South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River Intimate, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

When I got back to the trailhead, Ellen and I walked to another shooting location, close to the trail, along the river and examined another couple of spots.

South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River, Anchorage Borough, Alaska
South Fork Eagle River Black & White, Anchorage Borough, Alaska

At this point, it was late in the afternoon. Still, several hours of daylight remained and we aimed to make the most of them. Given that this post has already run very long, that experience, and the photo opps from our last (partial) day in Alaska will be the subject of my next entry.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 27, 2022

On Foregrounds, Sans the Grand Landscape

I’ve blogged on the subject of foregrounds before, most recently a number of years ago when I discussed the importance of this compositional facet when using a wide angle lens. Though I didn’t say so explicitly, the aforementioned piece kind of implies that this foreground/wide angle relevance only applies when photographing grand landscapes. All of the presented examples, after all, include the horizon. and most are near-far wide angle images. To the extent that the piece implies that foreground importance isn’t a relative concept for more intimate scenes, I want to take this opportunity to clarify the record.

Back in April of this year, I spent a week in the Smoky Mountains–a trip that will be chronicled here, eventually–and when I was processing the images made in the Smokies I remembered that there were quite a few instances when I was very deliberately using foreground elements as prominent compositional anchors for scenes that were decidedly not of the grand landscape variety. I’m going to include a couple of these photographs in this entry and briefly discuss why I composed the images the way I did, with an emphasis on the inclusion of foreground elements. Most, if not all, of these images, will likely be regarded as at least a bit unorthodox.

Little River Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Little River Reflections

The reflections are what initially caught my eye, but as I wandered around with my camera in hand, I wasn’t pleased with any of the perspectives I examined that isolated those reflections, either as straight water abstracts, or as semi-abstracts with an anchoring element (e.g. amidst a rock, a log, etc.). I had been examining the weathered tree trunk you see in the mid-ground on the right hand side of the frame, and spent some time looking at the extensive root system and the swath of flowers growing between the roots and the trunk. I spent quite a bit of time looking at and ultimately rejecting intimate shots including the roots, flowers and trunk. (I should note that this was my first hour in the field on this trip and my image-finding workflow was certainly a bit rusty. I spent quite a bit of time at this spot before I ever seriously considered tripping the shutter.)

It was only after rejecting a rash of possibilities that I began to think about going a bit wider and including the element (the reflections) that had attracted my attention in the first place, as part of a broader scene. I had to maneuver around in the relative shallows of the Little River quite a bit before I found a composition that I really felt worked. Going fairly wide, I had to get close to the foreground roots/rocks element, with the flowers and trunk in the near-midground, buttressing the reflections. I felt that the lines and angles of the foreground and midground naturally led to the background–towards the upper left, where the whitewater and log essentially meet the far shoreline.

There are other ways of composing this scene, of course, but I think that the foreground elements are absolutely crucial to making it work. In fact, I thought about (and actually examined the possibility of) using the flowers as the primary foreground element, but doing so completely changed the perspective, and not in a positive way. (The trunk became far too dominant and, by necessity, moved to a more central location in the frame. It was a combination I didn’t like at all.)

But the overarching point is the critical role of the foreground in the image–despite the fact that the scene is (relatively) intimate in nature. By thinking in terms of foreground/midground/background, an enhanced sense of depth is present. Not composing in this manner would have left the final product with a flat, in dimensional terms, appearance.

Let’s examine one more image:

Whiteoak Sink, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Whiteoak Sink

I made a couple of images of this S-curve in the trail (facing the opposite direction from what you see here) without the tree frame, and I like them well enough, but there’s something a bit more impactful to me about the above rendition. I like the texture present on the trunks–both the natural contours of the grooves in the bark and the moss/lichen growth–in its own right, but I particularly like the way the frame keeps the eye focused on the snaking trail as it unfurls through the carpet of wildflowers, towards the background of the fame and through another stand of trees.

I had spent some time in Whiteoak Sink, mostly focused on the copious wildflowers (predominantly phlox and trillium). After photographing the trail in a more conventional manner, I began to look for other ways to compose the scene, something that would emphasize a sense of depth in this comparatively tightly constrained location. I noticed some tree trunks whose shapes created natural “windows” upon which to peer through and after looking at and rejecting several such specimens for a variety of reasons, found the one you see here. When I saw that I could include the S-curve, I knew that I had found my base perspective and then went about fine-tuning the rendering of the scene.

Again, it’s the inclusion of a foreground element–using a wide angle lens (I was right on top of that trunk)– as an intrinsic part of the composition that sets this image apart from the others I made at this location.

Being conscious of foreground possibilities, particularly in relatively densely-laden locations like the ones represented in the above images, can help you think in compositional terms–both the elements that you include/exclude and the focal length you choose to represent those elements within a moderately wider scene–that you might otherwise never consider.

I’ll include one more example from the trip, without further commentary.

Grotto Falls

Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The day was to begin with a sunrise shoot at the Summit Lake area of Hatcher Pass. The forecast was promising, but we miscalculated the time necessary to reach the lake and by the time we were about three-quarters of the way there, the sky was showing color. I have long said that one of the worst (photographic) feelings in the world is to be traveling in a vehicle while a sunrise or sunset is exploding, so we pulled off at the first decent overlook area we could find. It wasn’t where we planned to be, but we had interesting 360-degree views from this spot, so it wasn’t bad. About all we were missing was a compelling foreground; I ended up shooting exclusively with my telephoto rig.

Talkeetna Sunrise, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Talkeetna Sunrise, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Talkeetna Dawn, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Talkeetna Sunrise, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Above the Clouds, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

It was chilly, with a touch of wind, on this morning, before the sun could make an impact, and that made things a bit uncomfortable. But we persevered and, when the color in the sky faded significantly, we made our way the rest of the way to Summit Lake. As I foreshadowed in the prior entry, the lake itself was completely unsettled by wind, making it a photographic no-go. Attention was thus turned to other subject matter, less impacted by the light breeze.

Hatcher Pass Morning, Summit Lake State Recreation Area, Alaska
Hatcher Pass Morning, Summit Lake State Recreation Area, Alaska
Hatcher Pass Morning, Summit Lake State Recreation Area, Alaska

Descending from Summit Lake–unsurprisingly, given the name, the high point of the pass–we spent the rest of the morning exploring the western side of the Hatcher Pass area. We found much to like about the first 10 miles or so of this region, and stopped frequently to make images.

Talkeetna Mountains Morning, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

The light was very nice, and would remain so for some time, and we had a compelling sky to work with as well.

Talkeetna Mountains Morning, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Even though the sun had been up for some time, it disappeared behind clouds for lengthy periods and there were also large swaths of ground that were in the shadows of looming mountains. (The common theme here is even light.) We stopped, on a high mountain road, at one such spot, where a nameless creek tumbled down the mountainside to our right.

Unnamed Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

I had finished photographing the creek and packed all of my equipment away when I bothered to look out at the broad valley on the other side of the road and dutifully unpacked my things and set up again.

Mountainside Color, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

At one point, when we were stopped, an arctic ground squirrel came close enough to us to photograph.

Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

A bit later, we found ourselves astride Willow Creek and here we stopped and really “worked the scene.” The colorful fireweed was a major attraction and it didn’t hurt that, unlike Summit Lake, this spot was utterly windless. I started with a spot up on the bank…

Willow Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

…and ultimately donned my waterproof foot coverings and waded right into the shallows at several spots.

Willow Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Willow Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Willow Creek Intimate Black & White, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Willow Creek, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

We wrapped up at Willow Creek moments before the shadow line drifted into the background, making the spot effectively unshootable.

We drove the rest of the pass area, and while we stopped to explore several spots along the way, I think Ellen and I both felt that the most compelling locations lay behind us. It was early afternoon when we arrived at the main highway and we decided to spend the early afternoon exploring the Knik River Valley, southeast of us, near Palmer. The light was, for the most part, awful during this exploration, so we didn’t stop all that much, but we did find one location that we took the time to investigate and, ultimately, photograph.

Where a bridge crosses the Knik River on the Old Glenn Highway, there is a parallel bridge (replaced by the current span), obsolete, but still accessible on foot. From there, some unique views of the river and valley can be found. We climbed onto the old bridge, took a look at the view, and then returned to get our gear. And then, we waited for the light to improve. It took some time, but eventually, it did.

Knik River, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska

When our (mostly) car tour of this area concluded, it was mid-afternoon and we decided to return to Hatcher Pass and explore a couple of trails. The first was the Gold Mint Trail, which follows a rushing creek up into the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains. Despite the still sunny conditions, this sounded promising, so we set out. It wasn’t what we anticipated. We kept expecting to find access to the creek, but it never happened. We could hear it, and occasionally catch a tiny glimpse of it, but heavy vegetation between the trail and water prevented the photo opportunities we thought we’d find. We made due, at first, with the odd intimate shot, in full shade.

Devil’s Club, Gold Mint Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Leaves and Tree Roots, Gold Mint Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

But after hiking somewhere between two and three miles, and no longer even being within earshot of the creek, we decided to head back. The hike itself wasn’t particularly difficult, but we weren’t finding many photographic opportunities of interest and thought we could do better elsewhere with what light remained on this day.

On the return trip to the trailhead, I did stop once to capture a distant telephoto scene, across the valley, that I thought was interesting, in the improving light.

Shadowed Color, Gold Mint Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

We made our way to the Reed Lakes trailhead. This is a popular, and rather lengthy, trail, with significant elevation change and substantial boulder-hopping required to reach the various Reed Lakes. Many people do this as an overnight excursion, though it can reportedly be done in a single day with an early start. It was early evening when we arrived, so we had no thoughts of traversing the length of the trail; instead, we thought we’d go a mile or so in and see what we could find in the limited amount of daylight remaining.

Archangel Valley, Reed Lakes Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Clouds were gathering as we arrived and that made, as it turned out, for some compelling mountain scenes once we got far enough up the trail to arrive at some interesting vantage points.

Foggy Mountains Black & White Panorama, Reed Lakes Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Foggy Mountains, Reed Lakes Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Archangel Valley Panorama, Reed Lakes Trail, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

The ever-increasing cloud cover made it obvious that there would be no sunset on this day, so, before long, we turned around and headed back to the parking area, arriving just as twilight appeared.

We had one more full day in front of us, and we’d spend that in the Chugach area, to our south. That will be the subject of the next installment in this series.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 13, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 14: Denali to Hatcher Pass

After a rain-filled Day 13, we had one more morning to photograph at Denali National Park and aimed to make the most of it. We hoped to have a sunrise, but were thwarted by low-hanging clouds and mist at daybreak. Still, there was a lot of atmosphere embedded in these conditions and we hastened to take advantage of it.

Morning Fog, Denali National Park, Alaska
Autumn Meadow Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska
Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska

We wandered in and around various meadow locations along the upper reaches of the 17 miles of private vehicle-accessible park road in Denali. During that time, the fog lifted, returned and lifted again. We saw hints of clearing followed by overwhelming banks of low clouds. If you didn’t like the conditions, you only had to wait a minute.

Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska
Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska
MIsty Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

What didn’t vary? The peak fall color of the tundra.

Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska
Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska
Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska
Autumn Meadow, Denali National Park, Alaska
MIsty Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Mountain Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

We eventually wandered down to an unnamed rock-strewn creek and made use of a different set of elements.

Braided Creek, Denali National Park, Alaska

While we were at this spot, and scoping out different compositions, the low-hanging clouds began to lift in earnest.

Unnamed Creek, Denali National Park, Alaska
Unnamed Creek, Denali National Park, Alaska
Unnamed Creek, Denali National Park, Alaska

The sky was now undeniably clearing and we rushed back to Horseshoe Lake. Our time there had been limited the previous day due to the rain; now we hoped to produce a few more images before the light became too hot. We lucked out. Not only did the light, mostly, hold out for us, there was no wind; the lake itself was like glass.

Reflecting Conifers, Horseshoe Lake Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Morning Sun, Horseshoe Lake Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Forest Color, Horseshoe Lake Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Horseshoe Lake Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska
Horseshoe Lake Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

After we circumnavigated Horseshoe Lake on the trail, it was time to head out. We had a drive of more than three hours to make to get to the Hatcher Pass area, but before we departed for good, I produced one last image–of a changing roadside aspen clump, contrasted with the now deep blue sky–that I spotted just prior to leaving the park.

Aspens in the Sun, Denali National Park, Alaska

It was late morning at this point and we prepared to make the (approximately) 3 1/2 hour drive to our Hatcher Pass area lodgings. On the way, we did a crossword puzzle, with Ellen feeding me the occasional clue and context (“seven letters, the second letter is an A”) as we drove. I’m pleased to say that we finished the puzzle.

After making a mid-afternoon supermarket stop in Wasila, we found our lodgings (a well-appointed cabin, roughly 20 minutes south of the pass itself), dropped off our things and then went out to explore. It was late afternoon by this time and before we’d gone very far, we found ourselves driving along a road, in the direction of the pass, with the Little Sustina River running to our left. We came across a large pullout that provided direct access to the river and then spent the next hour or two making images at this spot.

Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Fall Color Intimate, Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Little Sustina River, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

When we finished at this location we continued north toward the pass, as the road climbed relentlessly. We made a couple of stops before we got to the gravel road that leads to Hatcher Pass itself, several of which were at overlooks that provided views down into the Matansuka-Sustina Valley.

Hatcher Pass Black & White, Matanuska-Sustina Valley, Alaska

When we reached the trailhead for the Fishhook Trail we stopped again and after a little bit of exploring we found a scene too compelling to ignore. Wild blueberries, now turning color, carpeted the hillsides as a lone tree stood sentinel.

Evening Mist, Fishhook Trail, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Evening Mist, Fishhook Trail, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

There were some people picking berries and every once in a while a head would pop up or a dog would romp through the undergrowth. When this happened we simply waited for them to clear the scene.

Evening Mist, Fishhook Trail, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska
Evening Mist, Fishhook Trail, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

Finally, we drove all the way up to Hatcher Pass itself. It was nearly sunset when we found ourselves astride the turquoise Summit Lake. While Ellen concentrated on the lake and the fireweed near its banks–which was a good call, since there was no wind at this point, which created excellent reflections and photograph-able flowers–I found myself drawn to the view through the pass. The sky was doing some interesting things. I reasoned–not particularly accurately, as it turned out; more on this in future entries–that we’d have plenty of additional opportunities to photograph the lake, but this sunset scene might not be replicated.

Hatcher Pass Sunset, Summit Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska
Hatcher Pass Sunset, Summit Lake State Recreation Site, Alaska

The light disappeared in short order and we made our way back to the cabin in twilight and, eventually, pitch dark.

We had two more full days, plus part of a third, to explore the Hatcher Pass area and the Chugach region to the south, near Anchorage. We would spend the entire next morning exploring the pass, and that will be the subject the next entry.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 6, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 13: The Day that Wasn’t

It’s inevitable, on a trip as long as this one, to a location as reliably wet as this one, that you’ll have a day that’s a washout. In fact, you’ll be lucky if you have only one such day. Day 13 was our lone day of incessant rain. It wasn’t torrential; it was (unpredictably) anywhere from very light to steady, all day long. We tried to make the best of it, but the experience reminded me of my very first visit to Lake O’Hara, in the Canadian Rockies: when you have almost no shelter, it’s chilly and you’re out in the rain for an extended period of time (even with the proper attire), it becomes difficult bordering on impossible to focus on the task at hand (i.e. photography). Keeping gear dry is a pipe dream.

We really did try to make the best of it. In the morning, we stopped at the visitor’s center and got some advice about a possible hike. (We still had hopes, at that point, that the rain would stop, at least for periods of time.) And we dutifully set off on the Rock Creek Trail, in the aforementioned light rain. We even spotted some things we wanted to photograph, though on our first pass on this out-and-back trail we merely noted the spot, in the hope that when we returned the rain would have stopped, making photography a bit easier. That turned out to be mostly wishful thinking, but we did make a a few images.

The first was at a colorful spot in a mixed hardwood/conifer forest that captured our attention. At this location, we were on a trail that was cut into a fairly steep hillside of birch trees, with conifers in the background.

Fall Color, Rock Creek Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The other photos from this hike came from an overlook, looking into the valley below us, focusing on the contrast of an aspen deposit amidst a conifer forest.

Yellows and Greens, Rock Creek Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Aspen Sea Overlook, Rock Creek Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

We returned from this hike good and wet and spent a fair amount of time drying ourselves, and our equipment. We had hoped to hike the Horseshoe Lake Trail, a spot that we’d visited, briefly, in failing light, back in 2018. I felt that I had unfinished business in this area, specifically a location that included a vast selection of lichen-covered trees. But the rain was now as heavy as it had been all day, so we deferred Horseshoe Lake. We drove up and down the park road and, after an hour or so, found ourselves near the entrance. With the rain no softer than it had been when we finished the hike, we decided to head back to Carlo Creek and really dry out. Our tripods were soaked, with water getting into the bushings, so some time with the legs extended in a dry, warm area, would be beneficial. In 20 minutes or so we were back at the cabin and spent the next few hours catching up on email.

At roughly 5 PM, I opened the door and looked out. If the rain hadn’t stopped completely it was dramatically lighter than had been the case when we returned so, we packed our things up and headed back to the park, with the intention of photographing at Horseshoe Lake.

The parking area for Horseshoe Lake is just off the park road, and it’s about a tenth of a mile from there, along a railway bed, to the trail to the lake. The trail declines steeply for roughly a half mile, into a kind of bowl that houses the lake. The trail around the lake is a bit more than a mile, but the spot we were most interested in visiting–the lichen-strewn forest–is very close to the base of the trail as it drops down the mountainside.

The rain held off as we hiked down and found our location. Teasing out compositions in this area can be tricky and it takes some time to really explore the offerings, but we ultimately found a complementary log and went to work…just as it started to rain again.

Horseshoe Lake Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

With the rain a factor yet again, I knew that I had to work quickly if I was going to produce even one more image. I had noted a spot a few yards back up the trail with a colorful foreground and nicely spaced, trunks, and rapidly made my way there, fine-tuned the composition as the rain increased in intensity, and made what what turned out to be my final photograph of the day.

Horseshoe Lake Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

We slogged back to our vehicle in what was now–again–a steady rain. At this point–it was now pushing 8 PM–there was no debate about what to do. It was raining, it was getting dark, we were wet, tired and a bit frustrated…we decided to call it a day.

We had one last morning to photograph at Denali. The next day, we were to make our transition to Hatcher Pass, a bit more than an hour north of Anchorage and roughly a 2 1/2 hour drive from Carlo Creek.

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 31, 2022

The Story Behind the Image: Calm Before the Storm

A few years ago, I spent the tail end of a week-long trip to south Florida in Jupiter, about 90 minutes north of Miami. The first five days or so of the trip had been spent south of Miami, photographing in the Everglades, Big Cypress Preserve and in the Keys. But I’d wanted to do a bit of seaside photography and it was suggested to me that I check out an area known as Blowing Rocks, a Nature Conservancy property on Jupiter Island. Unlike almost every other part of the southeast Florida coast, the location, including its interesting, weather-worn beach rocks, has been preserved from development.

I only had one full day, plus an evening and a morning, in Jupiter, and I spent the first night I was there scouting the location. What I discovered is that access to the preserve itself is difficult to achieve (mostly because parking in the area is almost non-existent), but only a mile or so south lies a county park, with ample parking. The county park–Coral Cove Park, by name–has some of the same large beach rocks that give Blowing Rocks Preserve its name. There aren’t nearly as many of them, but in a way, that’s preferable as its much easier to isolate individual rocks on the beach at Coral Cove.

Because Jupiter Island is on the Atlantic side of Florida (i.e. the east side), Blowing Rocks and Coral Cove make for better sunrise than sunset locations. This didn’t stop me from visiting the area at both times of day. My first sunrise at Coral Cove turned out to be spectacular. The sky turned pink, purple, orange and yellow, in various places at various times, and those colors were reflected in the calmer areas of the water, between the waves and in the wet sand left exposed by receding waves.

Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida
Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida
Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

The following morning was to be the last possible photo op of the trip. I had an early afternoon flight out of Miami, which left me enough time to photograph sunrise and then make the drive to the airport. The only problem was that there was a forecast for heavy rain that morning; it wasn’t even clear that there would be a sunrise. Was it worth heading down to the beach? I decided to chance it.

What I ended up with was a dramatic setting, with ominous clouds and active surf creating a scene every bit as impactful and unique as what I’d seen the previous morning. That second morning produced conditions that I felt worked much better when rendered in black and white.

Stormy Morning Black & White, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida
Stormy Morning Black & White, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida
Stormy Morning Black & White, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida
Stormy Morning Black & White, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

The storm held off until I was about halfway back to Miami, when it opened up and poured, in one of the most blinding rainstorms I’ve ever experienced.

But my two morning sessions on the beach, separated by 24 hours, were an excellent reminder of just how much the character and mood of a location can change dramatically in a very short period of time.

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 24, 2022

Alaska Revisited Day 12: When the Tail Wagged the Dog

I left off the narrative of Day 12 with seemingly little to say. It was, perhaps, 90 minutes until sunset on what had gradually become an entirely cloudy evening (i.e. there would be no sunset). Ellen and I had serendipitously discovered a moose feeding along the side of the George Parks Highway on our way back to our lodgings. That sounds like the introduction to a small photographic gallery and a paragraph wrapping up the previous post. It turned out to be much more than that, unfortunately, but let’s start with the gallery and description of the photo encounter.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Our moose friend, as I mentioned last time, was 15-20 feet off the west shoulder of the road, happily munching away. We were just off the shoulder on the east side of the highway. The moose showed nary a sign of bother at our presence.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

We grabbed our telephoto setups, deliberately did not pull out our tripods (partly to speed up the process, since we didn’t know how long the moose would hang around and partly to avoid doing anything that would enlarge the size of our physical footprint), and stayed astride our vehicle. We did not cross the road or make any move closer to the moose. I would estimate that we were 60-70 feet away, shooting handheld.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Ellen and I were using similar setups–I had the Nikon F-mount 80-400, with an FTZ adapter, on my Z7ii body. Ellen had a Canon EF-mount Sigma 100-400 lens with an adapter on an R5 body. We both had the benefit of IBIS and it was still bright enough (and the subject was cooperative enough) to allow us to avoid jacking the ISO up to astronomical levels to obtain sharp handheld images.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Most of the photographs you see here were not made at 400 mm; I frequently zoomed out to reveal part of the environment.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

For several minutes we were by ourselves with our moose friend. You’re seeing a small sample here of the several dozen images each of us obtained. We never moved from our spot and the moose didn’t stray far either.

Moose, Denali National Park, Alaska

Inevitably, however, passersby on the road noticed the moose…or us…or both…and slowed down and stopped. Traffic on the highway was light, but it was extant, so within 10 minutes or so a half-dozen other vehicles were stopped alongside us. At first, everyone stopped on the same side of the road we were on, that is, across the road from the moose. Most people had nothing more than phone cameras to use, though one person who stopped pulled out a truly big rig–an exotic prime of some sort, complete with tripod for support. Still, despite the increased number of people, no one crossed the road. But it wasn’t much longer before the circumstances changed.

Roughly 15 minutes after we first arrived there must have been a dozen vehicles stopped along the side of the road and nearly half of them were now on the same side of the road as the moose. Because the moose itself wasn’t very far off the shoulder of the road, many of these vehicles were barely out of the southbound traffic lane. In fact, it’s distinctly possible that some of them weren’t entirely out of the traffic lane at all, though I couldn’t swear to it. Regardless, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the situation with each passing minute. The moose still seemed calm, I thought, but I wondered how long that would last. I had stopped photographing at this point, partly because I’d already clicked the shutter numerous times, partly because some of the vehicles on the other side of the road were now serving as a visual obstruction.

And then I noticed that the moose was starting to move. Not bolting out of the way, but kind of meandering south a bit, paralleling the road. No one had actually approached the moose, but some of the people on the other side of the road were very close–probably less than 30 feet away. More vehicles were coming by and some were stopping, some were just slowing down in the traffic lanes, with the occasional phone popping out of a window.

Was the moose responding to all of this? Almost certainly. I’d had enough. I wasn’t certain that the moose was becoming agitated by what was unfolding but I strongly suspected she was and I didn’t want to contribute to the deteriorating situation any more than I already had. I said, out loud, “I think it’s time to go,” and turned to glance at Ellen as I prepared to open the rear door of the car and return my gear to my backpack, which was lying open in the back of the SUV. Ellen had apparently already come to the same conclusion and was beginning to put her equipment away by the time I turned in her direction.

I opened the rear door to the car and leaned in, kneeling on the interior, to finesse my camera/lens combination into the open space in the backpack. I was in the final process of returning an encased polarizing filter that I’d left in my jacket pocket back into a slot in the backpack when I heard a massive, sickening sound, followed by multiple muffled screams. Since my head was inside the vehicle and looking down at the backpack, I hadn’t seen anything, but my immediate, pained instinct was that the moose had bolted across the highway and been hit. “What the hell was that?!?!” I said. “Did someone hit the moose?” I pulled my head out and saw a vehicle, askew, more or less in the middle of the highway, its engine still running, smoke emerging from beneath a twisted hood, about 30 feet from where I stood. Ellen was already running in the direction of the vehicle.

By the time I realized what had happened, several people, including Ellen, were already at the vehicle, assisting the people inside. I immediately thought to call 911. I felt my pocket for my phone. Nothing. Then I remembered that I had l left it in in the front of the vehicle, charging using the SUV’s USB connection, when we had first spotted the moose. I opened the driver’s door and grabbed the phone. Unfortunately I had turned the device off earlier, as I was getting no service in most of the park. I powered it on and waited, but then shouted “Can someone call 911? Does anyone have service?” A woman yelled back to me that she was on the phone with a 911 operator at that moment. I relaxed, slightly, for a moment, but then the woman with the phone yelled again. “Does anyone know what mile marker we’re at?” No one did. I looked up and down the road.

We were on a long, relatively flat, straight away. Visibility to the north was clear for at least a mile. To the south–the road ran slightly uphill in this direction–it was clear for perhaps a quarter of a mile, the point of the hill’s crest. I couldn’t see a mile marker to the south and glanced back to the north. I saw what I thought might be a green mile sign in that direction, but it was too far away to be sure and, regardless, reading the sign at this distance–it was at least a quarter of a mile away–and in this light was impossible. So I started running in the direction. One of the other bystanders started doing so at the same time.

I’ve always been a very fast runner, and even at my now advanced age and outfitted with hiking boots (not the best footwear for a sprint), I rapidly left the other person in the dust. I ran at full speed on the wide, paved shoulder as fast as I could (it didn’t hurt that the pitch was slightly downhill) until I could read the sign (which was indeed a mileage marker). I turned around. The woman who had been running with me had stopped several hundred yards behind me, seeing that I was going to reach the sign first. I cupped my hands at my mouth and yelled, as loud as I could: “235! 2-3-5!”

She yelled back at me “2-3-5?”

“Yes,” I screamed. “2-3-5!” She waved then turned, ran a few dozen feet back in the direction of the accident site and yelled something. I couldn’t hear it, but presumably she relayed the number to someone closer who in turn relayed it back to the person on the phone. I ran back to the site of the accident–more of a jog then a sprint this time–and it was only at this point that I learned what had actually happened. Things had developed so quickly earlier that I hadn’t had the chance to find out the specifics. But now I joined Ellen and several other witnesses and, collectively, they told me what had happened.

Ellen hadn’t seen what happened either, since she’d had her head in the vehicle, as well. But she was pointed in the direction of the accident while I’d had my back turned to the road. The other two people who were now with us had seen the whole thing as it unfolded.

There had been a two-vehicle accident. The moose had not been involved and was fine; Ellen had seen the moose run into the woods on the west side of the road at the sound of the collision. One vehicle–the one now lying twisted in the middle of the highway–had plowed into the back of the other, which had been stopped on the west side of the road. The occupants of the stopped vehicle–a woman and her two adult daughters –were in some distress. Ellen had been the first person to reach that vehicle and related the situation to the rest of us. One of the daughters was uninjured but the mother, who had been in the driver’s seat, and the other daughter were pretty badly shaken up. They had, of course, had no sense of the impending collision, so the contact had been a complete shock. After a few questions, Ellen had told everyone in the car to stay put, that 911 had already been called and the basic status of things as well as the location had been relayed on and that help was coming. Ellen stayed with these folks until another bystander, a PA, had come by and was able to take direct charge of the situation. A passing EMT had joined her not long after. Everyone was conscious and checked out okay in terms of vitals, but the two injured occupants were reporting varying degrees of pain. Concussions were suspected for both two of them; neck and back pain were also reported. The situation for those in the other vehicle sounded less worrisome but at least one of the occupants of that car (there were two people in the vehicle) was reporting pain. Ellen had found the passenger of the contacting vehicle out of the car, sitting on the side of the road and asked him if he was okay; he said he was alright, but in some discomfort. The driver was uninjured and also out of the vehicle.

The 911 operator had called the state police and reported the accident and the location, as note above. The problem was that the nearest state police headquarters–this is central Alaska, folks–were in Cantwell, roughly 40 miles to the south, and Healy, about 15 miles to the north. While Healy is much closer, the route is more difficult and significantly slower per mile, due to the more mountainous terrain. Still, it was more likely that a police vehicle would show up from Healy, but it would take, probably, 30 minutes to arrive. An ambulance would be dispatched from Healy, eventually, but it would surely take longer.

In the meantime, we had an active accident site, injuries, a vehicle in the middle of a 65-MPH road and gathering darkness. Yes, at this point, it was starting to get dark. Twilight in Alaska lasts for a long time, but this situation had the potential to get worse. Vehicles had been passing through, slowing down, and avoiding the wreckage without causing any more damage, but doing this without assistance was becoming increasingly difficult. As we stood in a group watching a northbound vehicle stop in the middle of the road, unsure of what to do, one of the group members hustled off to try and direct traffic from that end. Realizing that this could only work if someone was doing the same thing from the other side of the accident site, I took off my brown jacket–increasingly difficult to see–and put on a bright orange outer shell that I had in the car, hoping it would be easier for people to spot me, then ran down to the north end of the site where vehicles were already queuing up.

For the next half-hour or so, the two of us improvised a signaling system, first using it to clear the backlog that had developed on both sides of the accident site, and then keeping the traffic moving. This became harder to accomplish as the ambient light dwindled, and I found myself wondering when the police would arrive, but we managed to pull it off without incident. Finally, I heard a siren to the north and, not long afterwards, saw flashing lights far up the highway. In another couple of minutes a police vehicle arrived and a single Alaska state trooper emerged. He sized up the situation immediately, realizing that he needed assistance just to manage things. He asked the two of us who were directing traffic if we’d mind continuing to do so while he saw to the injured and gathered information, at least until other officers arrived. This was a request, not an order. The officer was extremely polite and gracious and, of course, we agreed to help as long as we were needed, and he thanked us for that, as he quickly set up some flares that he hoped would make it easier for us to carry out our tasks.

I will be honest. While I wanted to help, I really couldn’t wait to turn this responsibility over to the professionals. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that much longer–10-15 minutes, I’d estimate–before more officers showed up. Before long, there were several Alaska state troopers and a park service law enforcement ranger on site. (It turns out that the accident, while on a joint state/interstate highway, was within the official Denali National Park boundaries, and was, thus, a joint jurisdiction event.)

My infrequent personal experiences with law enforcement over the years, in various jurisdictions, has run the gamut from extremely professional to embarrassingly incompetent. But I dealt with three of the four law enforcement officers who were at the scene that evening–two of the state troopers and the park ranger–and I want to emphasize what a truly positive set of encounters they were. The state troopers were great. They not only took control over the scene as quickly and capably as possible, they were also unfailingly courteous, as was the park ranger. We were thanked by all of them for staying at the scene for such a long period of time (we were there for a solid two hours all told) and for helping keep the lid on things both before and after there were professionals on the scene.

In talking with the others bystanders/witnesses present after there were enough law enforcement officers on the scene that we weren’t needed to assist any longer, we more or less pieced together what we believed happened. I could do little more than listen and ask the odd question, given that I had only heard the accident, not seen it. The vehicle that plowed into the other was being driven by a young woman. It seems that she was looking at the moose, not the road, didn’t see the stopped vehicle, and simply slammed into it at an uncertain rate of speed. She certainly was not going the speed limit (65 MPH, as noted above), or anything particularly close to it, but was she doing 20? 30? No one was quite certain. Perhaps that could be determined by experts based on the amount of damage done. It also seems that the stopped vehicle was not completely out of the traffic lane. How much of the vehicle wasn’t clear of the white line, on the shoulder? Not certain. Again, an examination of the accident site before everything was cleared off the road might answer those questions.

One of the troopers came over to us in short order–there were four of us standing there, including myself and Ellen–and asked us if we’d seen what had happened. I quickly took myself out of the conversation, saying that I’d only heard it. Those who had witnessed the accident narrated their accounts and, afterward, names, addresses and phone numbers–no one was from Alaska, or anywhere nearby–were provided in case law enforcement needed to speak with them again.

When the trooper was done, the park ranger came over to talk to us. After she thanked us–as the trooper had–for staying put and helping out, she explained why the park service was involved (as I noted, the accident had technically taken place within Denali National Park and Preserve) and told us that it seemed likely that at least some of the accident victims would need to be air lifted to Fairbanks for treatment. An ambulance–by now on the scene–would take them to Healy, but based on preliminary examination, there seemed to be some injuries serious enough to warrant a larger, better equipped hospital. Fairbanks was two hours or so away from Healy by road, but a helicopter would get patients there much more quickly.

And then we were told we could go. It was completely dark at this point, and had been for some time–probably 45 minutes, give or take. The wreckage was still on the road and we were facing the wrong way and situated on the north end of the accident site. There was no safe way to perform a U-turn. The ranger told us that the best option was to continue north on the road for about a mile where we’d see a turn off to the left. There we could turn around safely and navigate our way back to and through the accident site and be on our way back to Carlo Creek, a bit less than 20 minutes south. So that’s what we did.

Ellen and I didn’t talk much on the trip back to the cabin. I think we were in a state of recovery, of sorts. The incident had been such a shock and we’d been wrapped up in action related to it for so long that we really hadn’t had much of a chance to process what had taken place.

It was after 10 PM when we got to the cabin and we hadn’t eaten anything in countless hours. I think we both realized how hungry we were only when we got back to Carlo Creek so while a late dinner was prepared and consumed, we finally talked a bit about what we’d seen, heard and otherwise experienced over the previous few hours, all of which has been summarized to the best of my recollection above, after conferring with Ellen, who was very helpful in correcting some details and passing a long a bit of information that I don’t think I’d ever known previously, over the past couple of days.

One of the last things the park ranger had mentioned to us before she told us we could go was how wildlife jams inherently create potentially dangerous conditions on roads, all over Alaska and, unfortunately, we’d seen an example of what can happen. It was a sobering reminder of just how quickly something can go very, very wrong. I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind in preventative, rather than reactive, sense ever since, undoubtedly with no better than mediocre success.

One of the things that Ellen and I discussed only in the last couple of days regards our thoughts about our own role in this event. Not as unofficial responders, as I’ve related in the narrative above, but to the extent that we played a key part in the daisy chain of events that led up to accident itself. We had been the first people to spot the moose and stop. How many of the people who stopped subsequently did so because they saw that we were stopped? Would there have been a wildlife jam if we hadn’t stopped? If we hadn’t stopped, would the accident have happened at all?

Inevitably, questions of responsibility–not legal questions, but ethical ones–arise.

Acknowledging that ontological certitude is unobtainable, I think we’re both a bit troubled by our own role. My feeling is that, given how close the moose was to the side of the road, it’s likely that the next passing vehicle would have seen her and stopped…and if not the next one, the one after that. A wildlife jam was probably inevitable. Having said that, I’m not sure that I buy the notion that, therefore, we had no role in what transpired. On the other hand, we were pretty careful. We did not park on the side of the road with the moose. We took special care to stay far out of the traffic lane when we did stop. We didn’t pull out our tripods. We stayed glued to our own vehicle. All of this was deliberate, not a matter of happenstance. In the end we can only control our own actions and the only other thing we probably could have done was not stopped at all. Which kind of takes us full circle.

I’m not sure it’s possible to be entirely blameless in a scenario like this one. At the same time, I don’t think it’s rationalizing to suggest that if we hadn’t stopped at all–just driven on by, back to Carlo Creek–there’s an excellent chance that the accident would have still taken place, essentially exactly as I detailed above. Very likely there would have been one fewer vehicle at the site–our own–and that wouldn’t have significantly changed a thing. And if that’s so, how much responsibility for the occurrence should we bear?

Metaphysics? Perhaps. But wrestling with (arguably, ultimately) unanswerable questions like these is part of the self-examined life. And just recognizing that there’s no broadly obvious “right” answer itself can pay dividends, hopefully realized in the form of being less judgmental of others facing comparable no-right-answer situations.

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