Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wild Open Space

Exit 180 on Interstate 70 is one of the gateways to a cluster of National Parks and National Monuments scattered across southern Utah. Also known as Crescent Junction this dot on the map in eastern Utah is nothing more than an old, dusty, weathered gas station on the side of the road. Stopping to refuel I saw a bumper sticker pasted to the window of an equally old, dusty and weathered pickup. It happened to be my favorite Edward Abbey quote. “Wilderness is a necessity of the human spirit.” I have an endless appetite to visit and experience places where ‘wild-ness’ and ‘wilder-ness’ intersect. Growing up in Colorado, I’d held the opinion wild wilderness was exclusively a mountain and alpine phenomenon; those rare places where old growth landscapes shelter intact wildlife systems.

As I drove south I remembered the first time I came here. Several years ago my route to photograph slot canyons in northern Arizona took me through Arches, Canyonlands and on through Monument Valley. I was mesmerized as I headed south driving through this epic landscape. I’d never seen a place with such variety in color, shape, texture and scale. I’ve made several trips back since that day, but never felt like I connected with the spirit of the desert. Earlier this year a landscape photographer from Australia told me he was doing an extended trip to the Utah desert in early November. I couldn’t resist tagging along.

We started with the iconic spots and gradually went deeper into the backcountry. We hiked into Devil’s Garden and around Park Avenue in Arches National Park. We then jumped over to Dead Horse Point and explored Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. Comparatively, fall arrives later in this geography. While there isn’t much that grows here, that which does was screaming in fall color. Cottonwood washes looked like veins of gold flowing into deep red sandstone mesas. Add in the backdrop of snowcapped peaks from the La Sal and Henry mountains and the ingredients for dramatic photos were everywhere. This place is truly a photographer’s playground.

Landscape photography is a patient game and it wasn’t unusual to sit for long periods of time waiting for a cloud to move off a peak or the right light to paint softly across a scene. In these moments I couldn’t help noticing the contrast and paradox of the Utah desert. I found myself surrounded by deafening quiet and loud visual chaos. The landscape seemed to unfold the longer I looked at it; simple and manicured one moment, endless and complex the next. Once the bottom of an ancient ocean, Time has transformed the area into vast wild space.

I have to believe not a lot has changed since the Powell Expedition first floated through here 142 years ago. For me seeing bears and wolves wandering free across remote tracts will always be a powerful proof point for all things wild. However, my notion of wild wilderness has begun to shift. Seeing the artwork of Time, over millions and millions of years, I am again reminded in the natural world that there is never nothing going on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Garden of Grizzlies

Cloudless blue skies and warm sunshine greeted us as we weighed our gear and loaded two DeHavilland Beaver float planes for the short 30 minute flight into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary.  Routes into the British Columbia backcountry are often not as the crow flies given weather conditions.   We put Prince Rupert in the rear view mirror climbing over the Tsimpean Peninsula and crossed Work Channel.  Shortly after we passed Mount McNeil, the dark water of the Khutzeymateen Inlet appeared on the horizon.  As we banked to land, the gold masts of the Ocean Light II glistened against the emerald green landscape.  I was back in the Garden of Grizzlies. 

The Khutzeymateen Inlet stretches 25 miles to the Northeast from Chatham Sound. The steep granite mountainsides rise from water level shouldering the entire passage.  The Sitka spruce, alder, and yellow cedar forest soften the rugged terrain giving the entire area a sculpted, almost manicured appearance.   Logging, more than 50 years ago, changed the composition of the forest.  Old and new growths collide along divisible lines showing the diversity in age of the forest.  Hidden under the dense canopy, more than 200 active log slides remain. They deliver trees, stumps, and thin topsoil down narrow, steep, chutes to the inlet.  The head of the valley holds a wide grass covered estuary cut by several tidal creeks.  Clumps of lupine and indian paintbrush offer a pallet of pastel color along the edges.  The renewal of spring makes this an amazing time to be here. 

It takes a couple of days to find a rhythm when photographing grizzly bears.  Estimates put the resident population at 50.  During late spring those numbers climb as other bears move into the area to compete for mates.  We explored the tidal estuary in a small Zodiak, when the 20 foot tide allowed passage.  The balance of our time was spent on alluvial flats scattered along the inlet.  The intensity of mating season illustrates the pecking order in the social network.  The larger, older males wander the entire area.  Sub-adult males become satellite members of the ecosystem residing in outlying areas, laying low, looking to avoid conflict, by any means possible.   Sub-adults females become nervous and anxious with the sudden attention.  They seem to be constantly on the move, not knowing how to handle the social interactions.  The prime females know they are the main attraction.  They snub all callers until the most dominant partner is available.

Access to the Khutzeymateen is highly controlled.  Only two outfitters have licensed access from the BC government and the First Nations people.  Add in the remote location and you have the opportunity to witness a top keystone predator whose behavior is completely natural and not shaped by man in any way.  We photographed more than two dozen bears in a little over a week.  Some we approached on foot, others we drifted to in a small Zodiak.  It’s a magical moment when you are only a short  distance from a grizzly, staring into each other's eyes, and feeling as if  the animal is granting you access into a day in their life. The most remarkable experience was when we had was with a sow and two cubs.  Normally a female with cubs are absent this time of year steering clear of large breeding males.  They tend to isolate in dense cover until the mating season passes.  We found this female on a secluded alluvial beach near the estuary.  Dense forest covered one flank, a fast flowing creek the other.  Over the course of a couple of days we became familiar and predictable to this family.  By the end of my visit the sow would bring her cubs in our direction when we motored to the shoreline.  They would saunter the water’s edge chewing tops of sedge grass, digging clams and swimming a short distance from our positions.  One afternoon she exited the shadow of the tree line walking directly toward us.  She stopped, nose in the air, checking her surroundings and then collapsed, spread eagle across a log for a short nap.  The cubs scampered around their sleeping mom, occasionally throwing us a quizzical stare, posing for our rapidly firing shutters.  Her comfort in our presence made us wonder if she saw us as a little extra protection for her growing family.

The past couple of years I’ve traveled to British Columbia several times to photograph wild, remote bears.  Each visit  has been transforming, almost spiritual, in nature.  The Great Bear Rainforest and the Khutzeymateen are dramatic proof points that wild faces thrive in wild places.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Valley of Eagles

As a photographer bald eagles are one of those subjects that always stop me in my tracks. Regardless of what I’m shooting if a bald eagle shows up, it gets my attention. Throughout our winter months it’s not uncommon to see the silhouette of an eagle perched high in the barren branches of a cottonwood tree or flying around town. We’re fortunate to have several locations in our area where eagles concentrate prior to nesting in spring. Fossil Creek, Windsor Reservoir, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Lake McConaughy in Nebraska are popular destinations. I’ve also had good success finding eagles along the North Platte River in Wyoming. Unfortunately, quality wildlife viewing doesn’t always translate to quality wildlife photography. As the elk rut wound down this fall I was still antsy to sit behind my camera. For years I’ve been reading about a large concentration of eagles that show up north of Haines Alaska in the late fall and early winter each year. So I left the warm weather behind and headed to the Valley of Eagles.

Situated on the upper end of North America’s longest and deepest fjord, the Inside Passage, Haines is located in the southeast part of the Alaska, 80 miles north and just a little over an hour flying time north of Juneau. Travel to Haines was surprisingly easy. I was able to fly end to end from Denver in the same day.

The state of Alaska established a small 5000 acre preserve in 1973 to protect the habitat of concentrating winter bald eagles. Years of additions have brought the preserve to 48,000 acres (about a quarter the size of Rocky Mountain National Park) and the protected habitat now spans 30 miles of the Chilkat River valley. The prime eagle viewing area is adjacent to a critical habitat section called the Eagle Council Grounds 19 miles north of Haines.

The Chilkat basin is a wide alluvial valley. The porous, sandy soil allows a natural uprising of warm water to percolate into the Chilkat River keeping it open and ice free well into winter. A late run of chum salmon is the final ingredient necessary to bring over 4000 eagles into the valley, most of which congregate on the couple mile stretch of the Eagle Council Grounds.

The first morning I left Haines anxious to see this spectacle first hand. Through the first ten miles I saw several eagles flying and perched along the river. However, nothing like I’d read about. I was beginning to wonder if I’d come to the area too early. Perhaps the mild fall that Alaska was experiencing had the birds spread out and the numbers just weren’t there yet. Those questions vanished as I passed mile marker 17. They were indeed here. Trees were laden with dozens of birds and river flats were lined with hundreds and hundreds of bald eagles. In some places eagles were visible across the flats as far as the low, dense cloud layer allowed you to see. I’ve witnessed a number of spectacular wildlife events, but this was simply unbelievable.

I took me a while to get into the rhythm of this event. The volume of birds and constant activity made it difficult to decide what and how to capture photographs. I didn’t want to travel this distance and return home with a bunch of perched profile shots. So I began to watch and concentrate on the activity along the river edges and flats. I learned there was indeed a pattern in their behavior. Bald eagles hunt for what they need to eat within the first two hours each day. However their social behavior often gets in the way of solo hunting and feeding. Eagles are opportunistic and they turn into marauders, pirating and stealing food from one another all day long. When an eagle captured a salmon it would fly or drag it to shore. Standing on its catch they would let out a high pitched series of challenge calls as if telling others stay away. Each bird would get a few minutes of uninterrupted feeding before the attacks began, and these attacks were brutal. While I didn’t see any birds injured it wasn’t uncommon to see an invader drop from the sky, talons extended, slamming into another to take away a meal. Females being larger in size often threw their entire body into an unsuspecting challenger. The opportunity to capture action photographs of bald eagles was endless.

Each year in mid-November the town of Haines hosts an Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. The five-day celebration has interpretive tours, seminars, art shows and other cultural events. Despite the relative remoteness of Haines I’ve heard this event has a very loyal following and the area gets very crowded. I traveled to the valley the week prior to the Festival. In the five days I was there I had the area to myself seeing only two other photographers the entire trip. If you’re a bald eagle enthusiast Haines Alaska and the Chilkat Eagle Preserve should be high on your list of destinations.

Wild Faces*Wild Places Photography

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