A few photos from a scenic flight around Anchorage, Alaska, this November – reflections on growing up with aircraft, the importance of bush planes to Alaska’s culture, and the onset of winter.
A few photos from a scenic flight around Anchorage, Alaska, this November – reflections on growing up with aircraft, the importance of bush planes to Alaska’s culture, and the onset of winter.
What do you tell them, when they ask you? That when you go home, you live inside a painting? That when you approach, the endless peaks appear as if from a dream, their contours glowing into horizon, ridges like teeth, snowless valleys carving rivers into the earth? That every time you press your face, your lens, to the window, trying so hard to catch it? That feeling?
Earlier this winter, I stopped through my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, for a few weeks. I did a number of things while there – visited family, edited and launched some new bodies of work, fundraised for a new project (more on that later), skied, prepared for Antarctica, and visited my brother in Fairbanks.
It was there, in Fairbanks – at the Museum of the North, on the university’s campus – that I first laid eyes on an original painting by Rockwell Kent. I was drawn to it as if by magnetic force – the color, the richness, the way the canvas breathed forth the peculiarities of Arctic light that can only so fleetingly be glimpsed. He caught it – that uncatchable thing. I’d seen reprints of his work, read his books, even – but seeing the work in real life was another story.
The painting made me think of a lot of things. The image itself struck me, of course, because of the parallels it drew to my own daily reality (aboard ships in the Polar Regions), but it struck me also because of the color, that luminous quality and color of light. That single painting made me feel, instantly and forevermore, deeply connected to a community of artists and thinkers, past and present, engaged in ideas of North and northernness. The community had always been there, of course, but it took the painting to wake up to it.
It was a turning point. Since then, the more I consider it, the more important that community feels, and it’s everywhere. No matter what you are passionate about, somewhere out there are people who feel the same, who are driven by the same forces. You are not alone.
I’ll tell you this – as whimsical as Kent’s work may appear, it is in many ways astonishingly accurate. After seeing the painting, I saw it everywhere, in the mountains, the fjords, the sunrises.
On the flight home from Fairbanks, descending over Anchorage at dusk, I was suddenly gripped. Shooting in the dark, through the thick layered plastic of a jet window at thousands of feet, I gasped yet again at the vastness of this wilderness I’d grown up with, the Chugach mountains extending as far as the eye could see. Anchorage, when it finally appeared, seemed so inconsequential – a handful of glitter in the deep.
It was a beautiful November – not much snow, but properly cold, and by the time we returned from Fairbanks, the ocean had begun freezing in its myriad of formations. I’d just gotten a brand-new digital camera, and promptly took it to the sea ice to test it out.
The frozen sea of Turnagain Arm, only a few minutes from my childhood home, had been a source of artistic inspiration for as long as I could remember, but that day on the ice was challenging. No snow had fallen on the surface, and the ice was both slippery and brittle. I moved slowly, cautiously, outwards from the shore, while the moon rose above.
This was it: home. I’d been thinking a lot about sea ice, too, and our relationships to it. Here was a new camera, destined to tell these stories. Here was the first thing it saw. Here are the first pictures it took.
While I couldn’t get as far as I would have liked, alone on that new, fragile ice, it was a beginning. A beginning of something new coming, something more connected. I hope to move forward with a greater receptivity, now, to connectivity – of the things, in these polar realms, that draw us here; that shape us, and ultimately unite us.
Days have slipped, slipped past. So much happens so quickly it can be hard to even locate oneself in the flow of time.
Time for a major update. Let’s summarize. I graduated from college, spent a beautiful few days in Maine before leaving the East Coast for good. I went to Alaska and learned to shoot a rifle and catch salmon in a dipnet and watched one of my best friends marry the love of her life in the backyard where we used to hang out when we were kids. I slept on the ground by the side of a glacial river and flew in airplanes and climbed mountains and learned the names of Arctic plants and packed all my belongings for a year. Then I left the country on a direct flight from Alaska over the North Pole. Less than 24 hours later I was in northern Norway, land of my dreams. And here, I’ve been striking a balance between working on independent projects from my home base in Narvik, and full-blown enjoyment of total summer bliss. Living out of a suitcase and drifting around a bit. Here are some cell phone pictures.
Grandpa with some of my photos at the Woods Gerry Gallery in Providence.
A last glimpse of our class’s sophomore year polaroids before I left the Design Center forever.
Beautiful Charlotte at a fancy party the night before graduation.
Ben, as usual, dressed to match his prints.
And yes, I actually graduated.
The moment I finished art school, I resumed studying other things.
Decompression time in Maine.
Denali came out on our flight into Anchorage.
Hiking with the family!
Beautiful Reid and I at her wedding.
Adventure planning with Nic.
Staking out Nic’s land in ferocious mosquito territory.
Land claimed, flag planted. Success.
My brother arriving early from his job in the wilderness.
Family rifle lessons.
Going, going, gone!
Approaching northern Norway in the late-night sun.
Even freed from the burdens of school or employment, I find myself with an extraordinary amount of things to do, balanced with a thirst for life and determination to make the most out of each day. I suppose it will always be that way. Before I left home my mother reminded me that one can slow down time if one lives more in the moment. And so it is that each day has some element of miracle within it that takes my breath away, from an extraordinary hike up a jagged peak overlooking a world of fjords and ocean, to a late-night walk with the dog through a blooming infinity of wildflowers by the stormy sea where iron barges loom through the mist of sea-spray. It’s so beautiful it hurts, Tor Edvin says, pushing the boat off the coral beach through turquoise waters in 90-degree heat. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re above the Arctic Circle. It is hard to believe that so many parts of this life are actually real.
Grilling in the frigid rain.
Home or something like it.
Tor Edvin and I crashed our high school teachers’ ridiculous and insanely fun end-of-year party.
And then danced all night in this lavvo (tent) to celebrate solstice.
Norway, cake, and my favorite ‘Bergen Is For Lovers’ coffee cup.
Some roses I was stoked to have found, in reasonably good condition, in a dumpster.
Narvik looking pretty decent!
Goofing off in an elevator on the way to the (gasp) 16th floor! Narvik morphs into a booming metropolis!
Efjord breaking my heart with its beauty.
“Studio” these days.
For the past few weeks I’ve been back and forth between Skarstad and Narvik – I’ve got a few more weeks here to spend in Lofoten, Vesterålen, and the Narvik area before I fly to Copenhagen to start work. I may have forgotten to mention I landed my dream job as an expedition guide in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic for the summer… so that’s next on the list before I move to Canada in the fall! But first, more real summer in the sweltering heat that has just descended upon northern Norway.
A newsflash to anyone who may think my blog is actually up to date with my whereabouts – such is unfortunately not the case at the moment! I write to you now from Providence, Rhode Island, where I have been since mid-February. It’s my final semester at RISD now, and the opening of my thesis exhibition is now in three short weeks! Amidst all the chaos, I say it’s about time to get up to date. Here’s part one: a visual recap (mostly Instagram) of the last bits of winter, before spring semester began.
While Tor Edvin was still in Alaska, we went on many ski adventures and photoshoots, especially down at the sea ice. The winter was glorious, snowy and full of beautiful twilight color. The ocean ice changed dramatically by the day, and every trip down there was like discovering a new world.
Skiing around the abandoned mine at Hatcher Pass.
Precious sunlight on the trails at Hillside!
My dad, enthused about a wildlife sighting.
Tor Edvin playing on the sea ice. This is generally a bit of a no-no (read: do not do this), but we had a blast, and he narrowly escaped before the iceberg dissolved into the rising tide.
It was New Years!
After Tor Edvin left, the weather took a turn for the worse – and stayed that way. I was in Alaska for a total of two months, photographing for my senior thesis, and had been banking on pristine northern winter for my photographs. Instead, I soon found myself met with brown, dead grass, mud, and dismal grey rain. It rained for weeks; then it got sunny. None of this was conducive to the kinds of photographs I had wanted to make, but we found ways around it.
Ice climbing, view from the top!
I underwent a mild obsession with acai.
In a terrifying turn of events, I slid on some ice and rolled my car into a cliff wall, walking away unscathed.
The sky one morning as I ran some errands.
I went to Seward to search for some magic to photograph.
We ventured into the mountains in search of snow!
Uprooted and melting.
I passed the first round of my Fulbright application process, and received this beautiful photo book as a congratulations present.
I attended a snowy owl’s dentist appointment.
With that, I returned to RISD for my final semester of school. I had so much exposed film I felt like I already needed interns. With countless hours of scanning ahead of me, and a surge of extreme motivation, I departed Alaska, and flew East.
Alone at home in Alaska, in the wake of Tor Edvin and Nic’s departures, I decided to reunite with some old friends. I called up Killian Sump, adventurer and past coworker at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. Since there wasn’t enough snow for satisfying backcountry skiing, he had a better suggestion – why not go ice climbing? I had never been, but was stoked to give it a try. Up-close and personal contact with beautiful, sculptural, frozen waterfalls of varying colors and shapes? Sign me up!
We left town before dawn, outfitted with a whole bunch of dangerous-looking equipment that I had never before used, but frequently observed. After getting the car stuck in a ditch and soliciting some friends with a truck to rescue us, we finally parked at the Thunderbird Falls trailhead, descending down the trail into one of the most idyllic winter forests I have ever seen. Snow hung thick from giant trees, notably larger than those one typically encounters in Alaska. I was in awe.
The river running in the canyon below, usually frozen into a pathway, was mostly open water, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. After carefully making our way down the steep canyon wall, we found ourselves in a magical, quiet world of total stillness and the gentle sound of flowing water: Eklutna Canyon. Footprints led gingerly along the riverbank, crossing in selective areas where thick river ice still formed bridges over the water. It had been somewhat warm in Anchorage, but as we made our way down the canyon, we embarked into deeper and deeper cold.
We came to the first waterfalls, towering sculptures of green, blue, yellow; crystalline formations like glass that spilled from the rock face and down into the snow. It seemed like something from another world. Here and there we encountered other climbers, quiet and assessing, or slowly, gently ascending the ice faces. I was struck by how calm and meditative it seemed, like the only way to achieve such a thing was to work in cautious and respectful harmony with the ice itself.
We continued onward. A silvery layer of frost covered the stone walls of the canyon, glinting green-blue in the winter light.
At last, we reached our destination! Ripple, it was called. A group of climbers was already working their way up, so we hiked around for a bit, checking out some other waterfalls, trying to keep moving to stay warm.
When it came our turn, Killian climbed the lower wall first, setting protection into the ice with screws. At the top, out of my sight, he set up an anchor, so that on my first climb I could have the assurance of being top-roped. I put on the most vicious-looking crampons I had ever seen, and with Killian’s guidance, gave it a try.
Climbing ice was unlike anything I had done before. It was slow and methodic, and not as physically challenging as rock climbing, but it took focus, calmness, and perseverance. Pressed up against that wall of ice, with a tool in each hand, I would kick my toes into the ice, then one tool, then the other, slowly walking – sort of in midair, but attached to the ice – up the waterfall. It was slow-going, at first. I had difficulties getting the tools to dig deep enough into the ice, and my fingers, now in thinner gloves, were freezing.
Eventually, I asked Killian to lower me down. The cold in my hand was the kind of cold that makes you afraid. I removed the gloves and plunged my hands under my jacket, warming them on my bare skin. As blood flowed back into my fingers, my arms were flooded with extreme pain, like shards of glass being forced through my bloodstream, white-hot. Waves of nausea racked my body. What’s happening to me? I wondered, describing the feeling to Killian and the rest of the ice climbers hanging around.
“Oh, yeah, that,” Killian nodded understandingly. “That’s something we call the ‘screaming barfies.’ It’s normal. Sometimes it happens to people mid-climb, it can be so bad they throw up right there or pass out and fall off the wall.”
I stared in disbelief, but the other climbers agreed. The screaming barfies were clearly real, and I was getting my first taste of it. I stared at my fragile-looking hands. Sorry, I thought. After recovering for a bit and belaying Killian, I put on my warmest mittens, borrowed a fellow climber’s better ice tools, and ascended the waterfall without a problem. Warm enough clothes, clearly, were key.
As it goes with winter in the North, the sky began to darken by early afternoon, and we decided to make our way out of there before nightfall. Killian climbed back up, removed the anchor, and rappelled down from a nearby tree.
I waited below, listening to the chatter of the ice climbers, contemplating life. If I had stayed in Alaska, if I had never gone to art school, this would have been my life. I would be an expert at this sort of thing. Maybe I still will be, one day – life has a way of taking you where you’re supposed to go. I couldn’t shake the feeling, though, of brushing up against some parallel life I might have lived, a glimpse into another possible trajectory. The feeling was distinctly surreal.
Darkness fell on Eklutna Canyon, and we departed, mission accomplished.
A few weeks ago I was emailing with another photographer who integrates his art with wilderness travel. Near the end of one message I received, he described adventure as art, life, love and the merits of suffering. I smiled when I read it; the words resonated deeply.
In the days after Christmas, my good friend Nic and I decided to realize a longtime dream of attempting to ski across Eklutna Lake to the Serenity Falls Hut, a 10-mile trek from Eklutna’s parking lot. Tor Edvin and I raided the house for ultra-warm sleeping bags, energy food, and puffy layers of every variety. From the shed we unearthed the pulk, a Norwegian-made covered sled attached to a harness which my parents had used to take me skiing as a baby. We loaded the pulk and two large backpacks, and in the morning, were ready to go. The forecast was for about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Nic picked us up and we marveled as the sky dawned clear.
To our surprise, the temperature began to drop as we neared Eklutna, eventually settling around -10 below zero. Not the plan, but nothing we couldn’t handle – we all donned an extra layer and rigged ourselves up to the sleds. Excitement filled the air.
We were off! We had decided to create a shortcut by skiing directly across the lake, bypassing the longer trail through the trees. For the first few miles, a pre-packed track lay ahead of us, broken in by skiers who had come before. I couldn’t believe my fortune – out skiing, with two of my best friends from opposite sides of the planet, together, in the sun. Going on an adventure. It was impossible not to be in a good mood.
It was cold, though. Deep cold. My hair emerged in silvery frozen strands from under my hat; Nic’s back was white with frost where his body heat seeped from his sweater. Three miles in, we stopped for lunch at a little public use cabin whose occupants had only recently left. Warmth still lingered from the fireplace, and relieved by the heat, we feasted on our frozen sandwiches and chipped holes in the ice forming in our water bottles. I stared out at the lake. Seven miles more was a long way to go. Even inside, I began shivering uncontrollably, realizing that without noticing it, the cold had crept into my bones. For a few minutes there, I silently began to panic. The cold was intense and darkness would fall soon. I was wearing all my clothes. In desperation, I hitched myself up to the pulk, insisting that Tor Edvin ski ahead with just a pack. The sled was easier to pull than I had imagined, but the effort was real, and to my immense relief, I was comfortably warm again after about half an hour.
Unfortunately, shortly after the cabin, the existing trail came to an end. Darkness began to fall; Nic and I started to analyze the situation, diving into risk-assessment mode. Tor Edvin just smiled calmly. Nic and I had biked to the cabin before, in the summer – once we reached the end of the lake, still in the far distance, at least two more hours would await us through the forest, in the dark. If we could find the real trail before nightfall, we thought, maybe. We were tired, though, and reaching the edge of the lake seemed to take forever. We found ourselves faced with a steep slope of sharp, contorted lake ice disguising a hill of icy boulders. How would we even get our sleds up?
Nic and I carefully crawled up to the trail, which I’ll admit I was slightly surprised to discover was actually there. Far from the well-packed snowmobile track we had been hoping for, it seemed only a single skier had passed before us through deep, dense snow, the trail littered with tree branches. I rejoined Tor Edvin on the ice, which inexplicably seemed to be shifting under us, some strange overflow beginning to flood the ground under our feet. We needed to get out of there. Nic, unaccustomed to trail-free winter travel in the dark, was panicked, which worried me. His homemade sled, heavily laden with firewood, had been far more arduous to pull than the rest of our gear.
We made a new plan. We knew that the smaller cabin we had stopped at for lunch was reserved for the night, but we could follow our own tracks back to it and beg its occupants for an hour of warmth in which to cook dinner. It wasn’t the fun decision, but it was the right one. Tor Edvin harnessed himself to Nic’s sled; I took the pulk. We sacrificed some firewood to the lake gods. By some mistake we only had two headlights, but no problem – “It’s okay, I can see in the dark!” exclaimed Tor Edvin. I believe this is actually true.
The trek back to the cabin was arduous at best. On mile eight, still dragging heavy gear through the snow, we were exhausted. Somehow, though, the situation was thrilling. To our relief, a wave of warmer air settled over the lake, and despite my increasing fatigue, I grew more and more elated as time progressed. This is the LIFE! I thought. Nowhere but through this suffering does one reencounter life’s true priorities: food, water, shelter, warmth, and the well-being of one’s companions. That clarity of perspective, I find, is hard to come by in day-to-day life. Overwhelmed with zest for life, with love for my friends, with the exhilaration of being outside and feeling my body working and feeling alive, I marveled at our amazing fortune of being here, now. I smiled as I skied through the dark, focused on the back of the sled being dragged in front of me.
And then – something amazing happened. Arriving, utterly destroyed, at the cabin, we discovered to our amazement that it was unoccupied. We were saved! It was 8 PM – the chances of someone else arriving that night were so slim, we moved right in, rejoicing and cooking up a delicious salmon dinner and drinking beer and celebrating the immensity of our luck. The tiny cabin heated up to sauna-status within half an hour.
Only once did we hear voices out on the lake – I ran down hurriedly, ready to apologize and pack our bags, but the jovial voice in the distance explained that they were headed for the Serenity Falls Hut – the very one we didn’t think we’d be able to reach, and it was 9:30 PM! I couldn’t believe it, but let it go.
Dinner was only half-eaten before our exhaustion hit full-force. Discarding all hopes of making a party out of it, we collapsed onto our bunks instead. We slept, in the words of Barry Lopez, like bears in winter.
The next morning was stunning. I don’t know what to write besides that. I wandered with my view camera; Nic cooked breakfast. The temperature hovered at a pleasant 10 degrees or so.
Tracks on the lake.
Our home for the night.
Nic in kitchen-mode with my 4×5 lurking outside the window.
Tor Edvin’s legendary morning hair.
Breakfast accomplished, we packed up and headed back out onto the ice. The day was beautiful, bright, and significantly warmer than the day before. Our bodies ached, but we were delighted.
We skied happily to the parking lot, brainstorming some amazing lunch back in Anchorage and praying that the car would start.
Rewaxing, as the temperature had changed.
We stopped for portraits!
With a warm feeling of complete and total success, we returned happily to Anchorage. The car started just fine; we soon feasted on chicken-tortilla soup at one of my favorite restaurants. We couldn’t believe how alive we all felt. Let’s do it again! Let’s go! Let’s ADVENTURE!, I exclaimed mentally. I could tell we all felt the same. Nowhere else but out in the land, moving, seeing, breathing, can you ever feel more alive.