Terra Galleria Photography

Grand Canyon by Raft Photography Workshop

Imagine standing next to the ancient Nankoweap Granaries, perched 500 feet above the majestic Colorado River. From this vantage point, the Grand Canyon reveals itself in all its splendor—a testament to the power of nature. As you gaze down at the fast waters below, framed by towering cliffs that have stood for millennia, you’re filled with a sense of wonder and awe. With each click of the shutter, you immortalize not just a scene, but a connection between past and present, nature and civilization.

An interactive VR 360 degrees panorama of the scene in the late afternoon can be seen here. This is only one of the extraordinary scenes you are privileged to photograph each day, as we intimately explore one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. Here are another high view, a river-level view, and a side canyon.

Despite the grandeur of the canyon when viewed from its rim, its true beating heart resides within the Colorado river. However immense the landscape, rafting along the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon offers a remarkably personal encounter where you experiencing the sheer vastness firsthand, from within its depths. You are not merely observing the canyon, you are living in it. Journeying along the river presents a captivating spectacle for the eyes. Each curve reveals fresh vistas: sunlight dancing on the canyon walls, mirrored reflections on the surface, intricate rock structures and steep cliffs meeting the water’s edge – the list goes on.

This ten-day Grand Canyon Rafting expedition workshop is unlike anything that you have experienced. You will grin from ear to ear as we navigate safely some of the world’s most famous rapids, sleeping under the stars each night by the side of the river (camping equipment provided). For ten days, you will experience the camaraderie of a wilderness expedition, away from phones, the internet, and civilization. Although you will be challenged, anyone in decent physical shape should do fine. No rafting experience is needed, as our experienced crew operates the raft, sets up camp, and prepares all the three delicious daily meals.

I can affirm that a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon is one of the most outstanding experiences to be had in America’s national parks because before I took a ten-year hiatus from leading workshops to work on my books, the last workshop I led was precisely such a trip – it produced all the photographs on this page. With Treasured Lands and Our National Monuments in best-seller territory, I am resuming workshops. To restart with a bang, I have decided to co-lead another rafting trip down the Grand Canyon in partnership with my friend Oliver Klink from May 1-12, 2025. Not only Oliver is a widely exhibited and published fine art photographer, but he is also a very experienced photography educator who has led several dozen workshops – including our previous Grand Canyon river expedition.

While a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon is always one of the greatest adventures to be had anywhere, with regular trips, photographers can be disappointed by the choice and timing of the stops and camps which cater to participants with vastly varied interests. For this trip, one of only a handful of photography workshops offered down the Grand Canyon next year, the custom itinerary has been designed with only one goal in mind: to maximize photographic potential given the constraints of floating the Colorado River, where there is no going back upstream. With a ratio of participants to instructors of 6, you benefit from individual mentoring to hone your photographic skills and leave with incredible images. The guides we have chosen have a tremendous knowledge of the place and understand our photographic priorities. You will be traveling only with fellow photographers. Each day, we explore different hidden secrets of the Grand Canyon accessible only by the river from huge caverns to sculpted slot canyons, waterfalls, reflecting pools, hanging gardens, seeps, springs, and ancient granaries, photographing at the best possible time of the day to create prized images of sight seen by few.

Waiting lists for Grand Canyon private river permits can be more than 10 years. Even guided river trips fill up fast, and our river running company asks for a commitment a year in advance.

Update March 29, 2024: the trip filled up in five days, but if you are interested, I suggest you sign up for the wait list – a cancellation had occurred on the previous Grand Canyon by raft trip I led. This will also guarantee that you will be among the first to get notified of a similar trip offering in the future – the earliest would be 2026, since per National Park Service regulations, for everybody except river guides, there is a limit of one river trip per calendar year.

Learn more & sign up

QT Luong chapter in “Landscape Photography – American Master Photographers on Their Art”

In 2015, the China Photographic Publishing House released the book Landscape Photography – American Master Photographers on Their Art, featuring the work of nine American photographers (in order of appearance): Art Wolfe, Charles Cramer, David Muench, Clyde Butcher, QT Luong, Tom Till, Tom Murphy, Elizabeth Carmel, and Ian Plant. Since it was about studying how each of the photographers developed their way of seeing the world and their means of artistic expression, I thought the contents would be of interest.

The now out-of-print book was written in Chinese by Chinese-American photographer David Tian, the author of four books, based on research and telephone interviews. Being of Vietnamese ancestry, I cannot read or understand Chinese, so I wondered what the book said about me and my photography.

It finally occurred to me to try automated computer translation. The software had been around for a while, but the translations from the early years were not satisfactory. I write our annual family newsletter in English. A few years ago, as a relative in France found it difficult to read, I sent her a French version generated by Google Translate, after which she complimented me on having maintained such good written French language skills. Mandarin Chinese is another ball game. Although the most widely spoken language in the world, it is the hardest language to master. This applies to computers: Google Translate produced broken English.

Each of the book’s nine chapters consists of a narrative biography, an interview with questions and answers, and a selection of images with comments by David Tian. Since I thought that my biography wouldn’t be of much interest to the readers of this blog, I will be skipping it and starting with the interview. When I tried to clean up the automated translation with Chat GPT, the re-write sometimes deviated significantly from my remembrances of the answers, which were supposed to be my words – although probably distorted by the interview process. I used the automated translation as a reference to re-write each of the answers, so they may not be a literal translation. The original chapter in Chinese, whose spreads are shown below, is available as a PDF.

Questions and Answers

David Tian: What does landscape photography mean to you?

QT Luong: Landscape photography is my vehicle for personal connections with nature, the adventures of getting to locations, the joy of immersion in landscapes, and experiencing them at the best times of the day and year. It is my way of living a creative life and inspiring others. Moreover, landscape photography enables me to advocate for environmental conservation by celebrating the land and bringing awareness of its beauty and fragility.

How did you start landscape photography?

My father was a rather serious photographer and taught me the essentials. However, my passion for photography truly ignited during my mountaineering expeditions in the early 1990s. Captivated by the stunning vistas of the mountains, I felt compelled to capture these moments through photography so that I could remember them and share them with folks at home who could not reach the high peaks of the Alps. As I moved to America in 1993, I was inspired by the country’s diverse national parks and the rich history of American landscape photography. This prompted me to delve deeper into the art form, ultimately leading me to embrace large-format photography.

What kind of education have you received?

After Ecole Polytechnique in the mid-1980s, I obtained a PhD in computer science from the University of Paris in 1992. I conducted research in image processing and artificial intelligence until 2007 when I embarked on a new path as a full-time photographer. I studied photography on my own, mostly by reading lots of books and looking at lots of photographs.

What makes a landscape photograph wonderful?

An excellent landscape photograph needs two elements. The first is composition. Composition is how the photographer approaches the subject matter, using formal elements to guide the viewer through the image. The second is what I’d loosely call atmosphere. This means conveying a sense of place and time, and also the personal experience and emotions of the photographer.

How do you analyze a scene before shooting?

When approaching a scene, I make an inventory of its visual elements and try to zero in on what visually attracts me the most. I contemplate the emotions and themes that the scene evokes. I evaluate the potential of different viewpoints and lighting conditions. By analyzing these factors, I strive to create images that resonate with viewers on an aesthetic and emotional level.

What do you want to show the world with your work?

Through my photography, I aim to showcase the beauty and diversity of the natural world and foster a deeper understanding of it. Each image, and even more so, each set of images, serves as an invitation for viewers to experience what I experienced, to explore and connect with the wonders of nature. My hope is they will be inspired to appreciate and protect our planet’s precious landscapes.

You only shoot in color. What is your favorite aspect of color photography?

While I always capture the scenes in color, I occasionally explore black-and-white photography. However, I find that color photography allows me to convey a richer, more complete, and more faithful description of the natural world. Color can also add a powerful emotional impact to any image, helping to capture the immersive experience and sense of wonder of being present in nature.

What inspired you to photograph all of America’s national parks?

My first wilderness experiences took place on the high peaks of the Alps because those were the last wild places in Europe. It was mostly glaciated mountains above the tree line. When I started to visit America’s national parks, I was drawn to their natural diversity. In terms of geography and biodiversity, they represented all the different facets of a vast continent. I wanted to exhaust every opportunity to experience that natural diversity. As a self-assigned project, I aimed to create a set of photographs that would try to do justice to their splendor.

What are your plans for landscape photography in the future?

I am continuing the project to photograph nature in America’s national parks, with the goal of publishing a book in 2016. This could be extended in the long term to other U.S. public lands or international parklands, maybe in Canada and Mexico. In parallel, I have begun to pay more attention to the cultural aspect of the national parks, the man-made constructs that differentiate them from pure wilderness and define the park experience for many visitors such as visitor centers, interpretive signs.

Images and comments

The bulk of the chapter featured images selected by the author, with comments written by him. I was amused by two geographic errors. They are understandable as the result of the author mismatching my writings available on the Internet, something easy to do if you are not familiar with locations. I normally offer to fact-check articles written about me and I am always surprised that many authors decline that step. However, with the chapter written in Chinese, this would not have been practical. Since those were not my words and the Google translation was unreadable, I used Chat GPT to rewrite it into proper English. The text below is the raw result of this process, except for a few instances where I have corrected translation mistakes.

Northern Lights and Jupiter, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, 24mm lens, f/1.4 at 8 sec.

That year, Luong and his friends had planned a trip to Alaska to photograph the eagerly anticipated Northern Lights. Upon reaching Gates of the Arctic National Park, they consulted with the park ranger and discovered that in September, during the third and fourth weeks, the river would still be flowing, and the night sky would be dark (unlike the bright Arctic nights of summer). However, during the third week, there would be a bright moon at night, so they opted for the fourth week for their photography expedition. Since there were no roads leading to the park, they had to rely on a bush plane (a type of aircraft capable of taking off and landing in the wilderness without designated airstrips). Unfortunately, the weather took an unexpected turn in late September, and the pilots couldn’t guarantee a safe return. Consequently, they made the decision to paddle down the Koyukuk River for their journey back from the North Fork. “It was nearly winter in Alaska by then, and traversing the waterways was incredibly challenging,” Luong reminisced. “But amidst the rugged mountains, flowing waters, snow-covered terrain, and a stroke of luck, perhaps I would have the opportunity to capture some truly unique photographs.”

Buck Dam, willow trees, rocks and reflections, Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II camera, 100-400mm lens, f/11 at 1/30 sec.

With a plethora of famous national parks, many of the more remote and inaccessible locations often remain unphotographed. Luong, however, harbors a desire to explore these less-traveled places. While most photographers flock to Joshua Tree National Park to capture the iconic Joshua trees, cholla cacti, and unique rock formations, Luong remains determined to seek out new perspectives. Understanding the transient nature of landscapes, Luong focuses on capturing fleeting moments bathed in light. In one of his works, he seized the brief moment when the morning light cast its glow upon the water plants, creating a stark contrast against the dark rocks and water surface. This interplay of light and shadow infuses the image with a vibrant energy, showcasing Luong’s dedication to uncovering the unseen beauty of the natural world.

Yosemite Valley illuminated by sunset, Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Canham KBC 5X7 camera, 210mm lens, f/22 at 1/4 sec., Fuji Astia 100 film.

This renowned work by Luong epitomizes his unwavering pursuit of capturing the true essence of Yosemite Valley. Reflecting on his experience, Luong remarked, “No matter how extensively I explore, I cannot find a better location to truly encapsulate the beauty of Yosemite Valley.” He acknowledged the footsteps of Ansel Adams, a legendary photographer who frequented the area for his own captures. Luong vividly recalled a particular evening when he witnessed fog settling into the valley with a distinct opening on the horizon. Seizing the moment, he hastened to the scene and captured the rare spectacle, considering it a stroke of luck. For Luong, color plays a pivotal role in crafting the atmosphere of his compositions. He noted, “The granite walls exude a gray hue, accentuating the vibrant color contrast during sunset, when the golden-orange rays illuminate the cliff tops, starkly juxtaposed against the blue backdrop of the valley.” He emphasized the significance of fog in brightening the otherwise dark valley, enhancing the prominence of its blue tones and elevating the overall visual impact of the scene.

Yosemite Valley illuminated by sunset, Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II camera, 70-300mm lens, f/11 at 1/15 sec.

After exploring numerous national parks, Luong came to the realization that Yosemite held a magical allure, captivating not only climbers but also inspiring artists. Enthralled by its charm, he made it a ritual to return year after year. Despite the wealth of excellent works by talented photographers who came before him, Luong viewed this as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. He saw it as a benchmark against which to gauge and improve his own creations, constantly striving to innovate. In this photography haven, he believed that “often a new picture is just a few steps away.” While traditional American western landscape works often feature characters standing upright next to cliffs, gazing ahead, Luong’s approach diverges. In his work, the camera is positioned farther from the person, rendering them as small figures in the frame. Rather than serving as mere focal points, these characters serve to scale the landscape, effectively emphasizing the valley’s majestic beauty.

Indian Stone Arch and Milky Way, Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, 15mm lens, f/2.8 at 60 sec.

For a photographer deeply immersed in artificial intelligence and computer image processing research, the perception of three-dimensional space within images and its correlation with two-dimensional compositions is akin to the principles governing geometry and spatial processing in computer image manipulation. This expertise serves as a valuable asset in his landscape photography endeavors. In this particular image, the photographer capitalizes on his understanding of the varying brightness of the night sky, spanning from the western horizon to directly overhead, to craft a sense of curvature in the sky. Combined with the stark contrast between the Milky Way and the dark stone arch, he ingeniously infuses the scene with an additional layer of spatial depth, enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal.

Crater Lake illuminated by sunset, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, USA. Canham KBC 5X7 camera, 110mm lens, f/32 at 12 sec., Fuji Astia 100 film.

Luong emphasizes that landscape works should have a strong atmosphere, and he also understands that color plays an important role in rendering the atmosphere. In this photo of Lake Crater he took in winter, the atmosphere comes largely from the gorgeous clouds, the lake surface, and the pine trees and plots in the foreground, creating a color contrast against the snow. He also prominently expresses beauty in his works, “because I think the appreciation of beauty can rejuvenate our spirit and enhance our appreciation of richness and diversity. Recognition and respect for the colorful natural and cultural world.”

Starry sky and sedges illuminated by lightning, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Nikon 14-24mm lens, f/2.8, 30 sec.

This ambitious project to photograph all of America’s national parks was entirely conceived and completed by Luong himself, at his own expense. “This frees my creations from commercial demands and completely relies on my personal vision,” he explained. Leveraging the flexible photosensitive components in today’s digital cameras, with variable light sensitivity, Luong seamlessly combines elements such as stars, drifting clouds, and thunderstorms in the night sky with vivid details of the green grass in the foreground. This achievement, traditionally challenging in large-scale photography, is made possible through the advancements in digital technology, a feat difficult to achieve with reversal film. Through Luong’s digital and film works, it becomes evident that the evolution of science and technology not only revolutionizes photographers’ creative methods but also reshapes their perspectives and worldview. The sharp contrast between his works showcases how technological advancements are not merely altering the tools available to photographers but also influencing their creative ideas and perception of the world.

Sunlight through the mountains, Chamonix, France. Canham KBC 5X7 camera, 210mm lens with GND filter, f/22 at 1/2 sec., Fuji Velvia 50 film.

“I was originally a city kid who grew up as a scientist in France. More than 20 years ago, the call of the Alps changed my life,” reminisced Luong. Despite the Alps being in close proximity to worldly civilization, in his eyes, it represented another world entirely. His journey into photography began as a hobby rooted in mountain climbing, gradually shifting from climbing for the sake of ascent to climbing for the purpose of photography. Concurrently, his passion for landscape photography burgeoned, extending beyond a mere interest in mountaineering. This trajectory mirrors that of the late renowned American landscape photographer Galen Rowell. Undoubtedly, man is shaped by the earth, and the landscapes we inhabit influence the formation of our thoughts and ideas.

Translucent icebergs at dawn, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, USA. Canham KBC 5X7 camera, 110mm lens, f/32 at 15 sec., Fuji Velvia 50 film.

To capture immersive and poignant scenes at Glacier Bay National Park, Luong dedicated himself to learning kayaking in Santa Cruz, California. Since there were no land routes to the park, Luong and his wife embarked on an adventurous journey. They first flew to an Alaskan Eskimo village and then navigated by kayak along the Kobuk River to Glacier Bay, maneuvering through the majestic icebergs. Luong’s profound passion for nature photography stems from his belief that photography allows him to immerse himself in the natural world. He also deeply understands that love for nature arises from genuine comprehension and personal experiences.

Mossy maple trees in the Hoh rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington State, USA. Canham KBC 5X7 camera, 210mm lens, f/45, 10 sec., Fuji Astia 100 film.

“When I had to curtail my mountaineering activities due to health reasons, I felt compelled to acquire other wilderness skills to navigate this new chapter,” reflected Luong. Embarking on the solitary journey of photographing all the US National Parks proved to be a fitting pursuit. As he traversed the diverse landscapes of these parks, he discovered that each location sparked distinct emotions within him, fostering a yearning for understanding and exploration. “Every unique place holds its own allure,” he mused, “and I am drawn to unraveling its mysteries.” Indeed, the connection between humanity and nature is profound; as we emerge from the natural world, we are inevitably drawn back to it. Every plant, tree, mountain, and body of water in nature carries its own resonance, shaping our thoughts and emotions in profound ways.

Cracked playa at sunrise, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA. Canham KBC 5X7 camera, 110mm lens, f/22, 1 sec., Fuji Velvia 50 film.

Luong believes that the 5×7 format is most suitable for landscape photography compared to the larger 8×10 format. This preference stems from the fact that the 5×7 camera is lighter and more portable, yet still offers a large enough film size to capture intricate details that evoke his visual memory of each moment. Working with a 5×7 camera requires a slower, more deliberate approach, with each scene meticulously composed and photographed multiple times. This thoughtful method of working allows him to create photographs that convey rich visual content with precision. Using a 110mm wide-angle lens specifically designed for the 5×7 format, Luong can capture expansive scenery within the frame, providing viewers with a sense of immersion as if they were actually present at the scene. In this particular work, the cracks in the land are depicted from foreground to background, accentuating both the depth of field and the textural intricacies of the flat landscape.

Thunder and lightning, Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA. Canon EOS 3 camera, 28-135mm lens, f/4, 15 sec., Fuji Velvia 50 film.

“While traveling, I dedicate a significant portion of my time to scouting locations. I prefer to embark on multiple short trips to a particular area, allowing me to observe its conditions across various seasons and weather patterns,” explained QT Luong. “Through extensive exploration, I’ve come to realize the importance of selecting subjects based on prevailing weather conditions, rather than fixating on a predetermined subject and waiting for ideal conditions to materialize. This approach ensures that I always have subjects ready to photograph.” Luong shared with his colleagues that experiencing a place in different seasons offers entirely distinct perspectives, likening it to visiting a completely different park altogether. This diversity provides him with the opportunity to capture a wide array of images, each imbued with its own unique essence and character.

My Quest for the Ultimate Tripod

My tripod survey mentioned that the quest for the ultimate tripod was still ongoing. I convinced myself that my next general-purpose tripod could be, finally, the last one I bought. With that in mind, I removed the budget as a consideration and set up to look for the perfect tripod. Read on to see which tripod I chose, and more importantly, why.

Induro CLT203, RRS TVC-24L, RSS TFC-33, Gitzo 325

Feature requirements

Horses for course. There is no perfect tripod for every photographer and every situation. Knowing that in some travel and outdoor contexts I will have to compromise for a lighter or smaller tripod (if any at all), I looked for one that would work best for me when carrying a full-size tripod is feasible, which is most of the time. Personal preferences vary, but having used a lot of different tripods, I have a good idea of the features I wanted. The following are easy to assess:
  • No center column. Having owned tripods with and without a center column, I’ve occasionally found the column useful for a quick adjustment or to reach more height, but those situations are rare enough that I prefer the weight savings, lower minimum height, simplicity, and higher rigidity of a tripod without a center column. A small, but significant advantage of tripods without a center column is that they are easier to carry by hand when folded because there is a space between the legs for your fingers.
  • Three leg sections. Having owned both three-section and four-section tripods, I have developed a strong preference for the three-section tripods: faster to set up and fold, and higher rigidity. Compactness matters only in urban settings.
  • Eye-level height. I am 5’11” (70″ or 1.8 m) tall. To be able to look into the viewfinder while standing straight, I need a tripod at least 58″ tall. Except for the series 3 Gitzo, all the full-size tripods I have owned reach about 52-54″. Even after adding the height of the ballhead, this required me to stoop down a little when using the tripod at full extension. While this sounds like a minor inconvenience, if I spend a lot of time composing, the discomfort adds up to my posture problem, and aging has not improved matters.
No less important, but more subjective:
  • Smooth operation. This means how easy it is to lock and unlock the legs, slide the legs in and out, and adjust the leg angle.
  • Stiffness. The tripod has to hold a camera steadily and produce a sharp picture with long exposures even in windy conditions – not a given even with a good-quality tripod. This is subjective because no tripod will work in gale-force winds, so it is a question of “how good is good enough”.
  • Lightest possible weight given the previous requirements.

Narrowing the choice

Thirty years ago, it was next to impossible to find tripods below series 3 without a center column. Fortunately now one can choose from several manufacturers. Because of my previous experience, I eliminated Feisol. FLM CP30-L4 II and CP34-L4 II tripods looked promising, but unfortunately, they have four sections, and if used as three-section tripods (with the last section retracted) reach only 51.5″. In addition, their stiffness is slightly subpar. Likewise, Gitzo doesn’t have a series 2 without a center column, and I had reservations about the Gitzos I owned. This left two main contenders, Really Right Stuff (RSS) and Pro Media Gear (PMG). Both are family-owned companies that manufacture their tripods in the USA to exacting standards. They charge premium prices that in the past had deterred me because of my unfortunate tendency to damage or lose tripods. With a much more extensive product line, RSS is much better known, but as a result, I am prejudiced against them because of the owner’s politics. In addition, PMG was more responsive to queries.

RRS offers a full range of tripods from series 1 to series 5. Many consider them to be the best in the business. Examining the tripods quickly shows why. Besides impeccable build and operation, they feature a leg diameter larger than any other tripods of the same class. For instance, the series 2 RSS TVC-23 leg diameters of the top section are 33mm as compared to 28mm for a Gitzo series 2 and 32mm for a Gitzo series 3. By the way, in case you are wondering about the word “series”, initially series 2 referred to a tripod having a top leg diameter in the 20-29mm range, series 3 in the 30-39mm range, etc… If one ascribes a cross-manufacturer significance to this nomenclature, it could be argued that RSS labeling of their tripods is an anomaly. It also helps that RRS was the first to offer tripods of series 2 and smaller without a center column and chose a wide leg angle spread – more on this point later. The best series 2 tripod is probably the RSS TVC-23 which extends to 52″ and would be perfect for someone about 5’4″. But for someone taller, any series 2 tripods with three sections and no center column do not quite reach eye level. The TVC-24L needs all four sections to reach eye level and isn’t all that light or stiff.

RSS TFC-33 and TVC-24L tripods

Series 3 options

This led me to series 3 tripods, which are offered by both RSS and PMG. Both manufacturers offer short legs (RRS TVC-33S, PMG TR343) and full-size legs (RRS TVC-33, PMG TR343L), the latter extending to comparable heights of 58.4″ and 59.3″. In addition, there is the choice of two different apexes. The apex, also called the spider, is the part that holds the legs together. The wider apex is modular since its central plate can be removed to accommodate a center column, a leveling head, or a video bowl. Its width provides a larger base suitable for larger heads and adds stability because the pivot point of the legs is higher. The compact apex is lighter and results in a smaller folded diameter for the tripod.

RRS wide-apex tripods are prefixed as “TVC”, while their compact apex series are prefixed as “TFC”. RSS lists the TVC-33 at 1890g and the TFC-33 at 1690g – I measured 1735g on my scale. PMG prefixes their wide-apex tripods TR and their compact apex tripods TRS. Some configurations do not have a compact apex offering, but to convert the relevant tripods from wide apex to compact apex or vice-versa, you can buy directly from their website the other apex and swap it in fifteen minutes. Although they don’t list them, RRS can also sell you an apex. The compact apexes of both brands are designed to be the most compact possible and keep the folded legs parallel. Personally, I would have preferred something slightly larger to leave just enough room for fingers between the folded legs.

PMG listed the weight of the TRS01 Compact Apex as 175g, and the T34A01 Wide Apex as 420g. This would have resulted in a weight savings of 245g, putting the weight of a TR343L with compact apex and without spikes at 1565g, less than my Induro CLT203, a series 2 tripod considerably less stiff and which doesn’t reach eye level without a center column. An easy choice! I was disappointed that the measured weights were 200g for the compact apex and 325g for the wide apex. Since the latter includes a large spirit level and a beefy hook (both removable, totaling 30g) absent in the compact apex, the real difference in weight of 1840g versus 1725g isn’t that significant.

PMG T34A01 Wide Apex and TRS01 Compact Apex

Performance and Leg angle

Procedures for quantifying the performance of camera sensors or lenses are well-established and results abundant, but the same cannot be said of tripods. David Berryrieser was the first to create a framework for testing tripods that results in repeatable measurements. He created the excellent website thecentercolumn.com to publish his methodology and results while he was a physics graduate student at Stanford University. The irony is that in the site, he explains why using a center column invariably lowers tripod performance. David’s measurements are extensive, but he summarized the performance of a tripod in terms of stiffness with a single numerical score. Here are those numbers for some tripods:

tripod                height   weight sections stiffness
                     (inches)   (lbs)
RRS TVC-33	       58.4     4.30	 3       2184	 
Gitzo GT3533LS         59.7     4.58     3       2147
PMG TR343L	       59.3	4.12     3       1783	
FLM CP34-L4 II	       68.0	4.17	 4       1393
RRS TVC-23	       51.9	3.37     3       1941
RRS TVC-24L	       66.1	3.97     4       1132
Gitzo GT2542           53.7	3.74	 4       1181
FLM CP30-L4 II	       68.0	3.23     4     	  792
Feisol CT-3342	       56.8	2.53     3        628

By David’s results, the RRS tripods have the best stiffness-to-weight ratio of any tripods. The PMG doesn’t perform as well as the RRS (and Gitzo), but still strong when compared to all other tripods. David notes:

I found that the leg angle has a dramatic effect on the stiffness of the tripod. The wider the stance the better. The PMG has a relatively narrow leg angle at 21.8 degrees. Compare this to 23 degrees for the Gitzo and 26 degrees for the top ranking RRS. If the PMG had a 26 degree leg angle, I estimate that the yaw stiffness would be roughly 25% better which would probably make the PMG the top performer. Its frustrating that so many manufacturers uses a narrow leg angle. I can understand the appeal, a smaller lighter, cheaper, taller tripod. But the yaw stiffness really takes a big hit for modest gains in those other categories. It is frustrating in the case of the PMG precisely because everything else about the tripod is exceptional.
The comment about the leg angle correlates with my observation about the Feisol tripod. It looks like PMG has been paying attention since they subsequently switched to a 24-degree leg angle. After completing his PhD in 2021, David moved on, but so far the framework he created remains the only available. He has not updated thecentercolumn.com or re-tested the PMG, but I trust his prediction that the revised PMG performs in the same ballpark as the RRS. With that in mind, the PMG and RRS tripods with compact apex are the lightest meeting my requirements. They are a bit heavier than my series 2 tripods, but not by that much.

Features: RRS v. PMG

If not performance, here are the differences I saw between what RSS and PMG tripods:
  • RRS has a slightly larger leg diameter (37/32/28 mm vs 34/30/26 mm) and is slightly heavier.
  • Unlike RSS and most of the competition, PMG’s leg locks are all metal and have no rubber parts. They may be more durable but less comfortable to operate, especially in cold temperatures.
  • PMG’s tripod feet include spikes (for use on outdoor soft surfaces) that when not in use are cleverly stored inside the tripod tubes by screwing them in reverse to the inside part of the feet. Removing them for weight savings (60g) leaves holes in the feet that would have to be plugged, maybe with a short 3/8-16 screw. The downside it that the feet are non-standard. Most other high end tripods, including RRS, come with a 3/8″ screw hole at the bottom of each leg that can accept a much wider choice of feet with that thread.
  • On each leg of a PMG tripod, one of the two main bolts serving as the pivot is secured in place by another smaller bolt, therefore ensuring that the main bolt will never rotate relative to the leg. That rotation of the bolt relative to the leg, and the resulting floppy legs was a major issue with one of my Gitzo tripods and a complaint I had read about RSS, so I welcome this design detail.
  • Although both are some of the most expensive tripods, PMG is slightly less expensive ($1,100 v $1,165 for the wide apex version as of this writing), especially considering that if you want spikes, RSS charges an extra $100, and that PMG periodically offers special discounts in the 5-10% range for signing up for their mailing/SMS list.
All those differences are relatively minor. Both feature top-notch construction and function. In the end, small considerations add up, and I bought the PMG. It replaces both my Induro CLT203 (which I will keep for iffy situations such as canyoneering or sea kayaking) and Gitzo 325. Currently, all my older tripods require me to pull out the legs to set them up. With the PMG, if I just unlock the leg locks after holding the tripod up, the legs extend themselves by gravity. It will be interesting to see how long the operation remains this smooth. I expect this to be my last tripod article but will update it to report if the PMG TR343L holds up to be the ultimate tripod.

PMG TR-343L with wide apex and compact apex

Landscapes where I Live, in Monochrome

At last, I am releasing a body of work featuring landscape photographs made where I live, which means within half an hour from home. And if that wasn’t enough of a change in the practice of someone known for large-format photography of national parks and other public lands all around the country – itself a subset of extensive travels spanning five continents, I altered my photography process and then chose to present the images in black and white.

The continuity with my work in parklands is that, as briefly announced before, I made each of the new photographs while hiking within a local park or preserve. Galen Rowell had remarked in Bay Area Wild (reviewed here) that the Bay Area’s greenbelt rivals that of the country of Costa Rica, a much-touted eco-travel destination. Although only a small slice of the Bay Area’s diversity, I am fortunate to be able to access more than twenty nature parks within a half-an-hour drive from my home in San Jose, California. Over the past year and a half, we visited those oakland and chaparral habitats more than sixty times. On this page, I am showing twenty-five photographs, like on a short roll of film with the extra leader shot. They are from nineteen of the local parks, approximately from north to south:

  • Mission Peak Regional Preserve,
  • Ed Levin County Park,
  • Rancho San Antonio County Park,
  • Stevens Creek County Park,
  • Fremont Older Preserve,
  • Lexington Reservoir County Park,
  • Heintz Open Space,
  • Santa Rosa Open Space,
  • Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve,
  • Alum Rock Park,
  • Joseph Grant County Park,
  • Almaden Quicksilver County Park,
  • Santa Teresa County Park,
  • Calero County Park,
  • Canada del Oro Open Space Preserve,
  • Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve,
  • Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve,
  • Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Ranch County Park,
  • Uvas Canyon County Park.
With stock photography out of my mind, I have edited this work tightly and released only about fifty of those images into my archive where the only way of viewing them together is this link, which, unlike this page, sequences them randomly.

The Process

With the sole exception of the San Jose city skyline captured at dusk with the 100-400 lens on a tripod from Rancho San Antonio County Park, I made all photographs with the trusty 24-105 lens handheld, and more or less at midday.

Why midday? I made the photographs during family hikes, generally of about five miles, where the main purpose is having a good time exercising in nature. Initially, when it was only my wife and me, sometimes we went in the afternoon aiming to be at home before dinner time. Last year we were joined by two of my wife’s sisters. Although they prefer mornings, this group of night owls doesn’t care for sunrises, as early winter mornings are chilly, while in the summer the sun rises way too early. Anyway, unlike national parks, city and county parks are not open around the clock, and for most of the year, the sun is quite high in the sky when they officially open in the morning. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. For a long time, I have embraced the challenge of photographing at midday, even in the places that would appear less conducive to this approach. There is value for one’s creative growth to try to do work in less favorable conditions.

Why handheld? During all my life, while traveling, I have often stopped the family either on the road, the street, or the trail to photograph. Those periods of time invariably felt short to me, but long to them. For the recent family hikes, I made a change, resolving not to make anybody wait for me. We sustain a brisk pace of about 2.5 miles per hour, with a picnic midway. As I never backtrack while walking, I try to anticipate possibilities before they present themselves, which is part of pre-visualization – seeing what does not yet exist. Once I walk a hundred more yards, this tree will stop merging confusingly with that valley but instead detach itself against a more uniform hillside. It is great a exercise for the mind. When the anticipated composition appears, working purely by instinct, I make only minor adjustments to its framing. Taking up large-format photography in the early 1990s changed my photography practice by forcing me to become more deliberate and contemplative. Trying to photograph the landscape quickly and with no second chances shakes up again my process. There is value for one’s creative growth to do work with self-imposed constraints, and also in trying new things. Even though I always feel that I took the picture quickly, it is surprising how much one finds themselves behind on the trail in less than a minute. I then walk faster or jog to catch up with the group. It is also a great exercise for the body.

Black and White Photography

I hesitated to present this work in black and white, a first for me although these days I sell about the same number of prints in black and white as I do in color. The primary function of a photograph is to describe what is in front of the camera, and there is no denying that a color photograph offers a more complete description of the world. Although in the Bay Area the changes brought by the seasons are more limited than elsewhere, our hills turn from electric green to golden and then brown over the course of the year. Although unspectacular our autumn foliage (autumn colors in black and white?) still adds accents, feelings, and beauty to the landscape. On the other hand, unlike in other places such as the Colorado Plateau, our landscapes are not filled with colors that one would have any difficulty imagining. Presenting the work in black and white links it to a rich tradition of landscape photography, elevating those modest scenes by emphasizing their formal and abstract qualities over our everyday perception of them.

Do you think that the monochrome photographs in this body of work are missing something? I would be grateful if you answer this single question below, and even more so if you would say why you think so in the comment section at the end of this post. As with every time there is a poll I may not comment further to avoid influencing answers.(click here if you don’t see the question below)

Wynn Bullock Books

Wynn Bullock (1902-1975) worked almost exclusively near his home in the Monterey Peninsula, yet in his pursuit of what exists in the world beyond ordinary perception, he created mysterious photographs that reached a universal, almost metaphysical quality. Their metaphorical meaning reveals the extraordinary behind the surface of things. In the mid-1990s, Moe’s bookstore shelves prominently displayed his just-published major Aperture monograph. Although his vision was opposite to my literal approach to photography, the work immediately caught my attention. It was the second book of black and white photography that I bought – the first one was The Portfolios of Ansel Adams.

My previous surveys of books by photographers who influenced me (Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, and Galen Rowell) listed titles mostly about a specific subject, generally a place. In contrast, retrospectives are a collection of an artist’s greatest hits. Wynn Bullock’s books consist almost exclusively of retrospective monographs. To understand why, we should start with the fact that his initial career was as an internationally acclaimed lyric tenor. He took his first photos in 1929, but it was not until 1938 that he fully embraced photography by enrolling at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. To support his family, who initially lived in a trailer, Bullock operated a commercial photography business – often associated with Ford Ord – which occupied a large part of his time until he stopped taking assignments in 1968. His carefully considered seeing did not lead to a prolific output compared to other photographers working in the Monterey Peninsula such as Ansel Adams or the Westons, who sometimes overshadowed him. His photographs were never about specific subjects or places, but rather they concerned themselves with universal qualities such as space and time, the unity of opposites, and the distinction between existence and its perception. Although visually and thematically diverse, rather than forming distinct bodies of work, each of his photographs is part of a wider oeuvre. His first book The Widening Stream (1965) appeared quite late in his career and contained only 13 photographs, each faced with a short poem by Richard Mack. It wasn’t until 1971 that his first major monograph was published, and he would make his last photograph in 1973.

As of 2024, there are four major retrospective monographs devoted to Wynn Bullock’s work. All of them are out of print, but readily available on the used book market, at low cost except for the last one. Because their contents are relatively similar, comparing them provides instructive insights on the different ways one presents photographs in a book. For the sake of completeness, this article also briefly mentions all the other significant Wynn Bullock monographs.

There are a total of 349 reproductions in the four books drawn from a pool of 181 photographs. 81 appear in only one book, 50 appear in two books, 34 appear in three books, and 17 in all four books:

  • Light, 1939
  • Old Typewriter, 1951
  • Driftwood, 1951
  • Woman and Thistle, 1953
  • Woman and Dog in Forest, 1953
  • Burnt Chair, 1954
  • Del Monte Forest, 1956
  • Woman’s Hands, 1956
  • Stark Tree, 1956
  • Log and Horsetails, 1957
  • Navigation Without Numbers, 1957
  • Tide Pool, 1957
  • Child on Forest Road, 1958
  • Erosion, 1959
  • Sea Palms, 1968
  • Leaves in Cobwebs, 1969
  • Pebble Beach, 1970
In addition, the following appear in the three later books, but were created after the printing of the first book:
  • Point Lobos Rock, 1970
  • Sycamore Tree Scar, 1971
  • Tree Trunk, 1971
  • Rock, 1973
  • Wood, 1972
  • Wood, 1973
Many of those photographs and others can be viewed on the Wynn Bullock Estate website. In the spirit of the “meta-list”, one can count a selection for a book as a vote for a photograph’s importance. If a photograph appears in three books, one could consider that the only book that doesn’t include it “missed” an important photograph.

Wynn Bullock (1971)

Scrimshaw Press was an independent publisher of fine art books operating out of San Francisco from 1969 to 1976. The wilderness photographer Dave Bohn, a multi-talented creative about whom I may write in the future, was one of its principals. After looking at the seven photographs in the catalog of an exhibit that Bullock just had at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1969, Bohn immediately phoned Bullock to offer him a book. During the course of a single day, Bohn, Wynn Bullock, and his daughter Barbara selected the photographs, falling in agreement for all but one. Barbara would get involved in all the subsequent Wynn Bullock monographs either as a writer, editor, or consultant. Bohn spent the winter with those selections in a remote cabin in (then) Glacier Bay National Monument, where he designed the book. Nowadays, ambitious photographers with fewer than ten years of work feel that they need a book. Bullock first exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1941 and regularly had shows in prestigious institutions worldwide since. Yet his first major monograph came at age 69 due to that fortuitous happening. Check out this remarkable video of an interview with Bohn and Bullock discussing the book.

Tide Pool, 1957. Top: Scrimshaw (note bleeds), Morgan & Morgan; Bottom: Aperture, High/Texas. Click to enlarge

Wynn Bullock is a well-crafted production with a tipped-in illustration on the cloth cover (10.25″x12.25″) under an acetate jacket. Inside, the attention to detail manifests itself in the use of two different paper stocks, a semi-glossy paper for the plates, and a matte paper for the introduction by Barbara Bullock and afterword by Dave Bohn, printed by letterpress. The reproduction quality is quite good, especially considering when the book was printed. The book is divided into four decades (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s), and adding further pauses, a few spreads consist of quotes from Bullock without images. Wanting to avoid the staidness of a catalog-style book, Bohn’s layout mixes image sizes ranging from quarter-page to double-page spread and also mixes bleeds in an unconventional way. In order to focus the attention on the images, the designer omitted photo titles and page numbers. As a result, photographs aren’t easy to reference. I was nevertheless able to determine that of the book’s 64 photos, 10 were not reprised in the three other books, and that the Scrimshaw Press book “missed” (in the sense defined earlier) 13 photos, including some of my favorites. Of those 13, the 6 previously listed had not yet been created. However, its production values, quirks, and debut character make it an endearing book. I was lucky to find a copy with the signature reproduced as the header of this article.

Wynn Bullock. Photography: A Way of Life (1973)

Willard Morgan introduced 35mm Leica photography to the United States in 1928, was the first picture editor of LIFE Magazine, and the first director of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art. Together with noted photographer Barbara Morgan, they founded Morgan & Morgan, a publisher of photography books that appears to have been active until 2004. Morgan & Morgan published a series of monographs uniform in a general format surveying the work of a single photographer. Like the previous title, the book starts with an introduction by Barbara Bullock which is also mostly about Wynn Bullock’s philosophical approach to photography. That essay lays out in more detail and with examples the four creative periods of Wynn Bullock’s life, spliting them with more precision than plain decades (1938-48, 1948-57, 1957-68, 1968-), however, the sequence of plates is continuous.

Child on Forest Road, 1958. Top: Scrimshaw, Morgan & Morgan (note brightness and contrast); Bottom: Aperture, High/Texas. Click to enlarge

Of the four books reviewed, Morgan & Morgan’s Wynn Bullock. Photography: A Way of Life has the smallest trim and the lowest reproduction quality. However, it is a solid reference book. The format is similar to that of a catalog, concluding with the usual list of plates, biography, bibliography, exhibitions, and collections. All the plates are reproduced with the same white margin and at the same size, half-page for horizontals and full page for verticals – a drawback of the 8.5×11″ format of the book. Their sequencing is mostly chronological. The last reproduction in the book, Wood, 1973 would turn out to be Bullock’s last photograph. Out of the book’s 88 photos, 62 did not appear in the Scrimshaw Press book, the last 20 because they are more recent. 26 photos would not appear in the two subsequent books, and 7 were “missed”, including Child in Forest, 1951. The book has the distinction of being published during Bullock’s lifetime while not preceding any new work. As announced by Tree Trunk (1971) on its cover – can you figure out the double reversal?, it is particularly strong on images of his later period, which are more abstract and anthropomorphic. A selection of six of those later images would be included together with six paragraphs of writing by Bullock in the handcrafted artist book The Photograph as Symbol (1976), the first title of The Artichoke Press, issued in an edition of 200.

Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape. Photographs 1940-1975 (1993)

Aperture is a non-profit organization founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Barbara Morgan, Dorothea Lange, and others to publish fine art photography, a concept new at that time. They published a Wynn Bullock (1974) monograph as volume 4 of the series “Masters of Photography” and reissued it several times. That series, which is still in print, comes in a small trim and with only 96 pages. Because of that, and also that Aperture subsequently released the more substantial monograph Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape, I do not count the “Masters of Photography” book as a major monograph on the same level as the four reviewed in this article. The same can be said of the diminutive Wynn Bullock (2001) monograph in Phaidon’s 55 series.

Barbara was clearly close to Wynn, but in the essays in the two previous books, she refrained from biographical details, which photographer and writer Shevelev does not. Reading that after meeting Edward Weston in 1948, Bullock bought exactly the same 8×10 equipment that Weston was using before starting photographing in Weston’s style, made me feel better about my own imitative impulses. Bullock’s mature images could not be confused with Weston’s! And that he was able to flourish artistically only after his re-marriage to Edna, or that models in his nudes were frequently his daughters underscored the importance of a supportive family in one’s creative pursuits. Barbara was physically uncomfortable posing for the cover photograph Child in Forest, 1951. Yet she would go on to author Wynn Bullock Photographing the Nude: The Beginnings of a Quest of Meaning (1984) with editing by Edna. Edna took up photography a year after Wynn’s passing, resulting in Edna’s Nudes (1995) from Capra Press, the publisher of two of Dave Bohn’s books.

Stark Tree, 1956. Top: Scrimshaw, Morgan & Morgan; Bottom: Aperture (note spread), High/Texas. Click to enlarge

Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape shares several similarities with the Scrimshaw Press book: an identical trim and a few double-page spreads that make the design more dynamic, a design often used for a vertical format book with many horizontal images. The use of white margins and of Bullock quotes facing photographs (rather than other quotes) feels more classical, while discreet image titles are helpful. Using a less chronological and more visual sequence, true to its subtitle, the book puts more emphasis on the landscape. Out of the book’s 86 photos, 13 did not appear in the two previous books, including Let there be Light, 1954. Besides Child in Forest, 1951, Steichen’s landmark exhibit “The Family of Man” included as its opener Bullock’s beach moonlight photograph that came to be known after its caption in the exhibit, “And God said, let there be light – Genesis 1:3” and was the most popular in the entire show. Curiously, the famous photograph was omitted in the two previous books. It is reproduced here as a spread. Of all the four books, Wynn Bullock. The Enchanted Landscape was the best at featuring the consensus images for which Bullock is best known, “missing” only one.

Wynn Bullock: Revelations (2014)

Co-published by the High Museum of Art and the University of Texas Press, Wynn Bullock: Revelations, the catalog of a traveling exhibit that opened at the Museum in Atlanta did not need to qualify its claims to be “the most comprehensive assessment of Bullock’s career” with “in nearly forty years”. To start with, the publication features more plates (111) and pages (196) than any other, and its 11×11″ square format gives equal presence to vertical and horizontal images. Benefiting from 21st-century technologies, the reproductions are excellent. The book has all the apparatus that one would expect from a formal catalog: a clean presentation with image titles, a detailed illustrated chronology, and the usual lists. In the introduction, curator Abbott tries to shed new insights into the artist’s work through his relationship with science, an idea at the core of Bullock’s latest monograph Relativity: Wynn Bullock and Albert Einstein (2017), a most exclusive volume with platinum prints issued in an edition of 15.

Woman’s Hands, 1956. Top: Scrimshaw, Morgan & Morgan; Bottom: Aperture, High/Texas (note pairing). Click to enlarge

Only three spreads disrupt the conservative one-image-one-page format. It would seem that the consensus among book designers is that Woman and Dog in Forest, 1953 needs to be seen large since that photograph is reproduced as a double spread in all of the books except in Morgan & Morgan – which does not include double spreads. The two other spreads serve to open and close the color light abstractions section. The format avoids interrupting images by the gutter, while a few bleeds with vertical images add a bit of variation. Within that format, the image sequence is enlivened by judicious pairings and groupings, for example photographs that revolve around a portal. The book introduces 40 photographs not seen in the three previous books (60 not seen in the Aperture book), and “misses” only 4. Those photos are mostly experimental work. In images from the 1940s, before his decisive encounter with Edward Weston who taught him the value of straight photography, Bullock relied on sophisticated solarization techniques (for which he would get a patent!) and also tried abstract photographs of light – paying homage to what he thought as a unifying force in the universe. In the early 1960s, he extended those abstract photographs of light to color slides but felt that they could not be reproduced adequately with current technologies. That work was published by the Bullock Estate as Wynn Bullock: Color Light Abstractions (2010) but is included here for the first time in a retrospective monograph, making it indeed the most comprehensive of its kind.

2023 in Review and Happy New Year

In 2023, I mostly continued last year’s break. I focused on photographing close to where I live but also started to get back to faraway trips.

I shifted to photography near home for many reasons. On the personal side, I wanted to spend more time with family, and also reduce my environmental footprint. There were even more motivations on the artistic side, a coincidence with the end of an era. I liked being able to return to a location time and time again, finding beauty in mundane and overlooked places where nobody photographs. I’ve been thinking about the evolution of the concept of wilderness, shifting from perceiving untouched landscapes as sacred and separate to acknowledging them as integral parts of the human-influenced environment where I live. Besides nearby nature preserves, I paid attention to urban parks ranging from the Coyote Creek Trail where I’ve compiled a substantial body of work to disparate places such as Berkeley’s People’s Park. Besides photographing the home itself, one cannot be much closer to home than in the following photographs. I took the first images while walking out of my backyard, along a creek, and into nearby hills on a beautiful early February morning. The last one from later in the month when the wet winter treated us to rare snow, was captured less than two miles away from home.

A bit further, but still neighboring the Bay Area, I made multiple visits to Ford Ord National Monument in the south during winter and spring. Although mostly viewed by the locals as a recreation area, I found that a closer look revealed a worthy nature preserve with interesting biodiversity where the subtle but diverse landscape included several Central Coast ecosystems. In the north, I traveled to Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument, which of all the great parklands included in Our National Monuments is the closest to home. Although my timing for wildflowers was a bit off, I hiked several trails new to me in total solitude.

These days, I am mostly recognized for landscapes in America’s public lands, but I have also traveled and photographed extensively in Asia. I find that continent much cheaper than Europe, more exotic, more friendly, and the jet lag works in my favor. Despite my love and reverence for nature, from time to time, I find a radical break in pace and environment most stimulating. It was good to resume international travel with the family for the first time since 2019 on the occasion of an April trip to Tokyo. The most pleasant discovery was Enoshima Island which despite being only an hour away from Tokyo’s urban core felt like a world away, with an interesting mix of the spiritual and the kitsch, the ancient and the modern, and of nature and man-made.

On October 14, 2023, an annular eclipse moved through the U.S. West, the last of its kind visible from the country until 2044. Due to a mental episode, the trip to Japan with teenagers had turned out way more challenging than we expected, so I was surprised that when I proposed a road trip to watch the eclipse, the kids were excited enough that they did not mind the 1400-mile drive and outdoor living. At the last minute, we chose a location that would work for everybody in Great Basin National Park. Despite difficult conditions, I managed to make photographs and a time-lapse of the eclipse.

For more than five years, I’ve been trying to travel to Alaska in the fall to finish my national park projects, but something always got in the way. First, it was the urgency of the national monuments, then the pandemic, and in 2022 the weather. Although the latter wasn’t that promising in 2023, feeling the call of the wild, my friend Tommy and I decided to give the trip the go. Despite the frequent rain, after a quick impromptu visit to Denali National Park, our outing to Gates of the Arctic National Park via Anaktuvuk Pass was a satisfying wilderness and human experience, and in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, besides hiking a spectacular trail with views and history, I lucked out when I made the elusive night photograph for which I had come.

Fittingly for a year where I have photographed nature locally more than before, the last highlight occurred at Point Reyes National Seashore. Friends from the UC Berkeley’s hiking club came together for a 30th-anniversary reunion. On that last backpacking trip of the year at the edge of the winter rains in mid-December, we went strolling on the beach at night to have a good time, not expecting to see anything. Again, nature gifted wonderment, leading to my first time I photographing bioluminescence in the surf. At the end of a year that had turned rather dark, it was also a reminder that light can be found in unexpected places.

If you have read so far, my sincere thanks for your interest in my work. I wish you and your family a happy new year 2024 full of happiness, health, joy, peace, and wonder.

Autumn in Alaska: Images in Passing

I wrap up my Alaska autumn write-ups with a set of images that I made quickly from the air or from the road while traveling from one park destination to another, together with a few tips for photographing that way.

For various reasons, I had focused – again – on national parks. The 8 national parks in Alaska by combined surface area (71,074 square miles) dwarf the rest of the 55 national parks (27,131 square miles), or put it differently, they represent 72% of the total surface areas of U.S. national parks. Yet they form only about 10% of Alaska’s surface area (663,268 square miles), which is to say that in a state as sparsely populated (population below 800K) there are plenty of undeveloped landscapes.

The easiest way to survey those immense landscapes is by plane. In Alaska, a lot of the transportation that is done by road in the continental U.S. is performed by small planes: there are 6 times more pilots per capita (about 1%) in Alaska than in any other state. Chartering planes for aerial photography can be expensive, however, whenever I travel to Alaska, I always seem to end up on some scheduled flights. Whenever I board any flight, I get ready to photograph. The first thing is to make sure that I have my camera handy and not packed away, with enough battery power and plenty of memory. I try to assess the plane’s configuration and sit next to a window with minimal obstruction from the wing, struts, and propellers. Unless there is a particular subject that I don’t want to miss, I prefer to be on the side opposite to the sun, as photographing through backlit windows creates flare issues and make dirt or scratches more visible. On small planes, mitigating reflections from the other windows is essential. My preferred way to do so is by packing an oversized rubber hood. For other ideas, see tips for photographing through windows. Once in the air, it is essential to pay constant attention and anticipate, as compositions may be gone in seconds. The selection of images above was made during the flight from Anaktuvuk Pass to Fairbanks.

The selection of images above was made on a 90-mile section of the Richardson Highway during the drive from Wrangell-St Elias National Park to Fairbanks. Photographing roadside is easier than from the air, but you have to be in the right state of mind when you are looking for photographs rather than just motoring along, conversing, or listening. There is much less inertia when I can anticipate a composition, slow down, and pull out just in time than if I speed past it, to be left debating whether to turn around – especially with travel companions who are not photographers. A delicate balance has to take place between taking time on the road, and arriving at my destination in time, especially if not being late is critical. Recognizing that the journey matters and trying to leave some room for serendipity, even if I have a schedule, I try to give myself buffer time for a bit of photography along the way. Those roadside stops do not have to be time-consuming if you limit their spatial and temporal extents. With one exception when I strolled a little to look for a better foreground, I took all the photographs above while standing next to the road. Photographing the landscape with a telephoto lens is faster than with a wide angle lens, since variations are often obtained by pointing the camera and zooming, instead of by changes of viewpoint that require walking. Adding to the transitory character of the season, my favorite situations during the drive were when the light was transitory. I did not wait for the light to change, but instead tried to take advantage of the convergence of light and scenery as it happened in front of my eyes. When such a convergence takes place, the visuals can be as spectacular as any in the national parks. We can only hope that this part of the country remains wild forever.

Autumn in Alaska II, part 5 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

An elusive night photograph inside Wrangell-St Elias

Summary: Last fall, I made an unusual photograph at one of the most iconic locations in Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Read practical details about that location, the challenges of making that particular photograph, and how I processed my files to make the most out of the opportunity.

Autumn is my favorite time to visit Alaska because of the fall foliage and absence of bugs. A third reason has become personally important: I have been seeking to make a landscape photograph with stars in each of the national parks. It is not an easy proposition in Alaska. See how many night photographs made within Wrangell-St Elias National Park you can find on the Internet.

The location

Planning a night photograph in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, my primary destination was the trail along the Root Glacier north of Kennicott where I made one of my first large-format photographs of the park more than twenty-years ago (above). A hike not to be missed for any visitor to Wrangell-St Elias, it offers the most iconic landscape views in the park as it overlooks the glacier from a close distance with towering mountains behind. The moderate nature of the trail makes it easily the most popular in the area, if not the entire park. From that trail, adventurous folks can explore the Root Glacier or even cross it and then scramble up Donoho Peak. An official camping area about 1.4 miles from Kennicott along the trail facilitates night photography. The National Park Service (NPS) calls it the “Jumbo Creek Campground”, but amenities are few. Coming from Kennicott, you cross Jumbo Creek on a tiny footbridge – the year-round stream provides drinking water, after which you’ll find in that order a bear box, a few small primitive sites, and a toilet quite far up the trail, past the junction with the path descending to Root Glacier. The camping spot, suitable even for beginning backpackers, provides an inexpensive base for exploring the Kennicott area – by contrast rooms at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge start around $300 per night.

To get there, you drive the McCarthy Road, which takes 2 – 2.5 hours although it is only 61 miles long. Despite what you sometimes read, I’ve driven the road round-trip four times with a rental sedan and never experienced any issues. Past the end of the road, there is no vehicle access for visitors. Instead, you walk or bike across the footbridge. From the footbridge, it is about half a mile to McCarthy where most of the amenities are located, or 5 miles to Kennicott, the site of some of the most impressive abandoned mining structures anywhere, and the starting point for great trails. There are two routes to walk from the footbridge to Kennicott, but none are particularly rewarding. The current road offers some views but is quite dusty and has vehicles driving along. The Wagon Road Trail, a former road, is enclosed in the forest with no views at all. However, about a mile from Kennicott, it skirts a historic cemetery with a nostalgic atmosphere that is well worth a round-trip hike from Kennicott.

The challenges

Even in the summer, the access to some Alaska national parks can be daunting. In the winter, which is half of the year in Alaska, seriously frigid temperatures and snow make it an order of magnitude more difficult. By mid-April, daily high temperatures may remain below freezing, but there is already no longer any night as defined by conditions darker than astronomical twilight. In the summer, visitors enjoy moderate weather and twenty-four hours of daylight, but the absence of total darkness means no starry skies. It is not until late August that darkness returns and October may already be the beginning of winter. This left part of September as the best window for my trip. Why not the entire month? In 2023, the full moon occurred on August 30, and until September 8th, the moon did not set at all during nighttime. It was at least a half moon, bright enough to dominate the night sky.

Yet, September presented specific logistical challenges. First, it is that it is considered by many Alaskans to be the best month for outdoor activities and in particular, is prime hunting time. Before our flight to Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was delayed because of busy pilots, we found several stores sold out of essential outdoor items. When we returned from the park, we were not able to find a single hotel room in Fairbanks and had to settle for camping out with our soaked gear.

As previously mentioned, neither the old nor the new road (whose junction is shown above) are great walks. Visitors usually catch a shuttle from the bridge or McCarthy to Kennicott. During the visitor season, shuttles run hourly or better from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. The NPS website mentions that a timetable is posted at the shelter near the bridge that serves as a shuttle stop, however on September 16, we could not find any such document. I was wondering if the shuttle was still running but decided to complete one hour of waiting. The shuttle came. The driver announced that everything in McCarthy and in Kennicott had already closed and that the last shuttle run of the season was going to take place in a few hours. So the second challenge of a September visit is that in the second half of the month, when the fall foliage is at its peak, you will have to be self-sufficient, including walking the 5 miles each way between the bridge and Kennicott unless you can hitch a ride. It was unusual have the mining town and seemingly the entire area to ourselves with nobody in sight.

The third challenge is that September is the rainy season in Alaska, so the sky can be cloudy for long periods. We had booked a flight, but upon seeing the rainy weather forecast two days before, we cancelled and rebooked it for a week later. Using air miles on Alaska Air made it a breeze as the airline doesn’t charge any fees. Yet, even with the better weather forecast, during the previous seven nights, I hardly saw any stars at night but plenty of rain. The day before our hike to the Bonanza Mine, we had walked along the Erie Mine trail in intermittent rain under a constantly overcast sky. We bemoaned the weather even more because the northern lights were supposed to be particularly active that night, even at the relatively southern location of Wrangell-St Elias National Park.

The day of the Bonanza Mine hike was partly cloudy, which was a huge improvement over the previous days. Even though the clouds had blocked the sunset, as we hiked down to camp in the evening, I was excited to see patches of clear sky through which stars were showing up. We reached our camp after 10 pm, before the astronomical twilight which was at 10:30 pm this evening. It had been a long day that started well before sunrise, so the first thing I did was to stop at the bear box to start dinner for my friend and me. While eating, I kept an eye on the sky, trying to assess whether the conditions were improving or degrading. When it appeared that cloudiness was increasing rather than decreasing, I quickly went back to the trail to establish a composition with the glacier and Donoho Peak using the 12-24 f/2.8 lens set at 19mm. Instead of a single exposure, I set up a 50-frame timelapse with an exposure of 8s, ISO 12800. After a quick trip to the bear box to grab more food, I set up a second composition in the direction of the Chugach Mountains. By that time the clouds had almost entirely covered the sky, and in the middle of the 50-frame timelapse, it started raining. Realizing how short the window of time had been, I regretted slacking up by not having set up my camera earlier. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the elusive opportunity and confident I had enough material to work with. The next day, we hiked back to the bridge in the rain.

The processing

I had captured the images with the intention to run them through Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS) (discussed in this night photography primer) and was pleasantly surprised by the results. As expected, SLS has considerably cleaned up the noise for the land portion of the image, as can be seen in the comparison between the stacked image from ISO 12800 frames and a single ISO 6400 image:

I had assumed the software is meant to work with cloudless skies when stars are visible in all the frames, and was unsure of how well it would work with a sky full of fast-moving clouds. It turned out that it tracked the stars successfully while averaging the clouds, resulting in a satisfying blur akin to a long sky exposure.

When I compared the stacked image to individual frames, I noticed that stars that were present in some individual frames had disappeared from the stacked image, probably because there were more frames when they were obscured by clouds than frames when they were visible. I divided the images into two stacks of 25 frames to which I applied SLS:

The first resulting image displays stars on the left that become obscured in the second image. On the other hand, a cloud in the upper right corner obscures the sky in the first image, but has cleared in the second image. By compositing those two stacked images, I could present more stars than in the 50-image stack. That is a similar idea to blending images to remove people (#5 in this article). It runs contrary to the idea of capturing a scene at a single moment in time, but so do the star stacking techniques. I tinkered with different groupings, eventually finding that dividing the images into 4 groups of 12 worked best, with the land taken from the global stack. Looking at the four intermediate stacks, you can notice that in the last image of the series of four, the upper right corner is clearer in the last image of the series of two:

The final image, emphasizing the stars in accordance of the project of which it is part, is shown below. When I stood at the scene, after setting up the timelapse, I had taken my eyes away from the sky. At the time, I thought that there was a bit of light pollution, which in retrospect was unlikely since the closest city in the north is Tok, which lies 125 miles away and has a population of 1200. It was only after I color-corrected the images on the computer that I happily realized that the glow was the aurora, making the image even rarer. Photography is a generous medium!

Autumn in Alaska II, part 4 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park’s spectacular Bonanza Mine Trail

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park combines spectacular glaciated mountain scenery with well-preserved remnants of mining history. A well-mapped, although strenuous way to experience this unique mix is to hike the Bonanza Mine trail, maybe the best trail in the national park with the most hiking trails in Alaska.

Because of their low visitation and the National Park Service’s (NPS) policy to favor backcountry exploration in those parks, the Alaskan National Parks have very few official trails relative to their immense size. We saw in the previous article that not only Gates of the Arctic National Park has been set up to be devoid of official trails but also the rangers do not provide itinerary recommendations. All the official trails in Alaska’s national parks combine for less than 200 miles – for comparison, Yosemite has more than 750 miles of trails. More than half of those trail miles are located in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, making it a great choice for those who prefer not to wander out cross-country. Although I have not hiked every trail in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, from my research and five visits to the park, I would guess that the Bonanza Mine Trail is the most rewarding of them. With a 4,000 ft elevation gain and about 9.5 miles round-trip (to the ridge), it is a relentless ascent, but well worth the effort. It is a contender for the best trail in an Alaskan national park.

At first, the Bonanza Mine Trail didn’t look so interesting. It starts as an uphill 4WD road used by residents to drive to their private properties included in the park – other visitors are not allowed to drive motorized vehicles. As the first half of the trail is in the forest, trees block the views. Mosquitoes would be an issue in the summer. On the other hand, it was easy to gain elevation at a quick rate since the grade and footing were easy with few occasions to pull out the camera. If I was to return, I would start at night to hike this section of the trail in the dark so as to witness the sunrise higher up and enjoy the better morning light conditions at the top.

Once I reached the tree line around 2 miles from the trailhead, fantastic views opened up, and it was difficult to limit the number of stops for photography. The Chugach Mountains lay to the south, with the lakes formed by the Root Glacier moraine in the foreground. To the north are the Wrangell Mountains, dominated by Mt. Blackburn (16,390 ft), the fifth-highest peak in the United States. Those east-facing mountains are front-lit in the morning and backlit in the afternoon. Below are the converging Kennicott and Root Glaciers. The only other nearby location with a better view of them is the summit of Donoho Peak, but getting there requires much more than trail hiking: crossing the Root Glacier and scrambling up steep scree. Above are craggy peaks, dotted with historic mining structures that add a human dimension to the wild landscape. Note that from the other high trail nearby, the Jumbo Mine Trail requiring a comparable effort, ridges block many of the views available from the Bonanza Mine Trail.

Because the trail gains 4,000 feet of elevation, it traverses several vegetation zones, which were beautiful in mid-September. At middle elevations, trees displayed vibrant foliage, and I photographed with a bit of backlight to emphasize their brilliance. Higher up, the berry plants turned the tundra a mosaic of colors, for which I preferred the soft light that came after sunset. It was the only time on the hike that I missed my tripod as I had to crank ISO to 1600 to be able to stop down the lens enough (f/11 at 1/30s). At that time of the year, all services in McCarthy and Kennicott are closed, which is a pity considering that it is the best time of the year to hike. We had the long trail to ourselves, not meeting a single other person during a full day of hiking, however, we had to be entirely self-sufficient. Note that before July, snow may cover the upper portion of the trail.

At about 3.25 miles from the trailhead, the drivable part of the road ends at a breakover tram tower. The road, which was built in the 1950s to access the Bonanza Mine reaches the mine directly, but its unmaintained section above the tower is rocky with difficult footing. The footing is much better on the well-used path that follows the valley and then climbs steeply. The trail skirts waterfalls of Bonanza Creek and crosses a small creek from which water could be obtained. Various artifacts and remnants of mining structures regularly dot the landscape. Most noticeable were towers for a tram that carried the ore and miners down to Kennicott. The Bonanza Mine’s setting, in a high cirque of mountains, is impressive and brings immediately to mind the hardship endured by the miners who worked at such an inhospitable location starting from the early years of the 20th century. Being part of one of the richest copper ore deposits ever discovered which yielded over $100,000,000 in profit, the now ghostly evocative mine deserves its name. In the afternoon, the structures are backlit from the trail and then in the shadow of a ridge, so I wished we had lingered less on the trail and arrived there earlier. I photographed the tram towers as silhouettes against the valley and for the Bonanza Mine I took advantage of clouds that softened the light.

The Bonanza Mine, sitting at an elevation of 5,865 feet, is 4.25 miles from the trailhead. In the continental United States, the elevation would be modest, but keep in mind that the starting point of the trail at 2,000 feet is already above the lower part of the Root Glacier! Since the buildings are unstable and partly collapsed, we heeded the NPS warnings and did not spend time trying to explore them. Instead, we kept going up to the ridge above them by following a faint user trail. For a little additional effort (0.25 miles and 150 elevation gain), with views opening up to the north, the panorama was sweeping. It was one of the most spectacular viewpoints accessible from a trail I have seen in Alaska. As is often the case from mountain summits, after making wide-angle photographs, I worked to isolate portions of the landscape. In the only direction without distant mountain views, striking rock pinnacles flanked Bonanza Peak above us, and in that case, my favorite photograph was made with a wide-angle lens (below). We spent five days camping in the park, and for this hike, I had picked the day with the most sunny weather based on the forecast, which turned out accurate. On the days immediately before and after our hike, we would have been standing inside the clouds with no views. Verizon allowed me to get weather updates, whereas my friend had no coverage with AT&T and T-mobile.

Looking closer, it was easy to understand why people underwent all this effort to build those now-abandoned structures in such a remote location. The rocks displayed such vibrant colors from the mineral copper deposits. Although the scenery around was so impressive, it was this logical, yet unexpected find that captured my attention for a long time. I scurried around with my eyes fixed to the ground until it was time to head down. Departing in the morning from the Jumbo Creek campsite instead of from the trailhead next to the Kennicott Mill (unmarked, but located between the large wooden bridge over National Creek and the mill) added about 3 miles and 200 feet elevation gain to the trail for a total of 12.5 miles with 4,200 feet gain. We spent about 15 hours, with the balance I normally strive for, about half the time for hiking and half of the time for photography. A well-spent day on the trail!

Autumn in Alaska II, part 3 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Gates of the Arctic National Park via Anaktuvuk Pass

Gates of the Arctic National Park attracts two seldom-overlapping categories of visitors: some are on an express trip to tick off their bucket list of national parks, while others seek an extended wilderness adventure. As a result, visits lasting a few days are rare. Last September, my friend Tommy and I made such a visit using the native village of Anaktuvuk Pass as a starting point.

Most people view Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of the finest and largest wilderness areas in the world, as a place expressly set up to be devoid of human presence. However, for millennia, native mountain Eskimo people have sustained a nomadic lifestyle revolving around the caribou migration on this land. Contact with modern life led the Nunamiut to settle Anaktuvuk Pass in 1949. The village is named after a broad mountain pass from which the Anaktuvuk River originates, and which is on the caribou migration route. With a current population of 300-400, it remains the only Nunamiut settlement in existence, which in itself makes it a worthwhile destination.

If you look at the map of Gates of the Arctic National Park, there appear to be two main pieces of land to the west and the east, joined by a thinner band that includes Anaktuvuk Pass. The initial proposal for the park considered two distinct units, separated by a north-south corridor comprising Anaktuvuk Pass. In the 1970s, villagers welcomed the establishment of the national park on their lands as a protection against outside development. Besides constituting the largest land conservation bill in history by protecting 106 million acres, the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act of 1980 uniquely recognized the right of residents to continue a subsistence lifestyle in the newly established national parks, defining subsistence as:

Customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of non-edible by-products of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption; for barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption; and for customary trade.
The village of Anaktuvuk Pass, although included within the park boundaries, was designated as an inholding, which means that it is a private enclave surrounded by park lands but not subject to park regulations. The current boundaries of the inholding and a special non-wilderness park area were finalized in 1996 to allow residents to pursue their subsistence activities using motorized vehicles such as the amphibious six-wheeled and eight-wheeled all-terrain Argos ubiquitous in northern wet areas of the world, which are banned elsewhere in the park. The three types of lands: privately owned (light yellow), non-wilderness park areas (darker green), and wilderness park areas (lighter green) can be clearly seen in the map detail.

Since no roads reach Gates of the Arctic National Park, Anaktuvuk Pass has become a popular way to access the park. The village is equipped with a public-use airport that has even its own IATA code, AKP. This airport is served by scheduled flights, mostly Wright Air Service from Fairbanks ($190 per person each way), bypassing the need for expensive charter flights common in Alaska bush travel. You can leave luggage at their office, the planes carry camp fuel or bear spray, and the staff is professional. The morning of my trip, I had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. in the rain and we had driven from the main campground of Denali National Park to Fairbanks, stopping at a Walmart parking lot to repack for the flight. My friend Tommy returned the rental car at the Fairbanks International Airport terminal. Less than fifteen minutes before the departure for Anaktuvuk Pass, he could not find a taxi to get back to the Wright Air Service hangar located in the general aviation area. A friendly staff member gave him a ride.

On weekdays, Wright Air Service operates two flights that carry mail and vital supplies to the village. After the plane lands at Anaktuvuk Pass airport, it is quickly surrounded by native people in all sorts of vehicles visibly excited at the prospect of unloading goods. There are two lodging options and a free camping area, but visitors who do not venture into the wilderness generally come for a day trip. The morning flight left Fairbanks at 9 a.m., arriving in Anaktuvuk Pass at 10:45 a.m. Since there is also an afternoon flight whose schedule is more variable (ours left at 4:30 p.m.), day-trippers have several hours to wander the village streets, buy lunch at the grill (Nunamiut Corporation Camp Kitchen) or grocery store (Nunamiut Cooperative Store), strike up a conversation with the locals, tour a Arctic vegetable garden, and pay a visit to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum which showcases Nunamiut culture and to the National Park Service Anaktuvuk Pass Ranger Station that holds the sought-after park passport stamper.

However, those few hours are hardly sufficient to set foot in the national park. Many think that since Anaktuvuk Pass is included in the boundaries of Gates of the Arctic National Park, just by landing they are already in the park, but the fact is that Anaktuvuk Pass is an inholding: privately owned land that is not part of the national park area despite being surrounded by it, as a close examination of the official park map will confirm. That land, owned by a native corporation, extends for a significant distance in some directions. The closest national park boundary is about 2 miles northwest of the village, with a 600-foot elevation gain. Like in many Arctic flat areas, the tundra around Anaktuvuk Pass is wet. Because the permafrost (frozen soil), clay, and rock block surface drainage, there is standing water everywhere, and the only way to keep your feet dry is to balance yourself on unstable tussocks, which are like inverted potted clumps of grass without the pots. Hiking cross-country on the wet tundra and its ankle-busting tussocks is a lot of work compared to hiking on a trail or other solid surfaces. Do not count on hiking more than a mile per hour in that terrain. Corporation lands and some non-wilderness areas are crisscrossed by a network of unofficial ATV trails that make hiking easier – at the expense of the wildness, however, I do not know if there is such a trail towards the northwest, considering that the terrain around Soakpak Mountain, reminiscent of the mountains surrounding Banff in the Canadian Rocks (located at the “R” of RANGE on the detail map), is quite steep – also limiting hiking options.

When I first visited Gates of the Arctic National Park in 2000, I was surprised that the usually helpful park rangers declined to suggest specific itineraries. The rationale is that they want to spread land use by having visitors pick routes independently rather than concentrate on specific areas. They have a point. When I mentioned to the ranger stationed at Anaktuvuk Pass the date of my backpacking trip to the Arrigetch Peaks, he told me that I should be glad that I went back then, because in recent years a continuous user trail had been created. In most other places, this would be seen as an asset, but one of the reasons people come here is to experience untrammeled wilderness with no trace of human activity. In most other places, seeing dozens of hikers on a week-long outing is normal, but for Gates of the Arctic National Park, it is a circus. I had spoken via phone to the same ranger, and indeed he did not want to provide ideas for a short, four-day outing out of Anaktuvuk Pass. However, after I had pored over maps and identified a hiking area, he confirmed its quality and explained the local rules: you can hike through and even camp in corporation-owned public access easements only on your way to federal park lands, but cannot use them for base camping. Apart from the reluctance to suggest an itinerary, the ranger was friendly and informative, making sure to lend us bear spray. With one notable exception, we did not encounter a single other person once we left Anaktuvuk Pass. To leave the same opportunity for solitude to future travelers, I will conform to local standards and not disclose our exact itinerary.

That exception was Jim, a native subsistence hunter with whom we rode on an Argo midway to our destination. Tommy and I took off in the rain from Fairbanks. For the entire duration of our flight, we did not see the mountains as they were socked in a low layer of clouds before landing in a drizzle at Anaktuvuk Pass. Since the season had been unusually rainy, we didn’t look forward to trudging through the low-elevation wet tundra where even the ATV trails were muddy. Because Wright Air had canceled the Sunday flights, our trip to Gates of the Arctic had been cut short by a day. Upon walking onto the airstrip, Tommy immediately noticed the eight-wheeled Argo and proceeded to convince Jim to give us a ride, eventually negotiating a very reasonable compensation for this time and gas. Jim also packed his riffle and ammunition in case caribou would show up. This didn’t happen – they are usually around town during October, however we got a sense of his hunting abilities when he spotted and identified a bear on a high ridge with his naked eyes, whereas even with binoculars Tommy and I were not able to find the creature. The bumpy but fun Argo ride was a highlight of our trip, and so was learning from Jim about his life in the Arctic mountains. I was amazed at the variety of terrain that the machine was able to navigate, basically anything on the tundra, including sharp banks, rivers, and deep mud. No wonder the Park Service had to craft a carefully balanced agreement with the native corporation to limit their use to a specific area.

After following a broad valley, we arrived at the mouth of a drainage too steep and vegetated for the Argo. We bid goodbye to Jim and proceeded to climb up the drainage. Although we were less than four miles from the village, it was at this point a distant memory. Since we were in an area expressly withdrawn from designated wilderness to accommodate subsistence use, in theory, we could have seen traces of human activity, but this was never the case, and the land was as wild as any I had seen. With visibility limited by the weather, and with no trail to follow, I looked a lot at my feet, constantly marveling at the beauty of the ground, where each square inch was delicately alive in a different way.

Since it was all unknown terrain with no prior descriptions nor trails, I had mapped a straightforward route that reached an unnamed mountain lake nested in a cirque of mountains by following its clear cascading outlet creek. Not only there would be no chances of getting lost, but also we’d be guaranteed access to water all the time. The key to easy hiking is to find the right distance to the creek. Too close often results in more brush and rocks, but too high causes you to go up and down ridges.

It was mid-September, a great time for hiking in Alaska because of the cooler temperatures, lack of biting insects, and autumn color. Occasional snow is possible, but not deep enough to strand the backcountry traveler. I was hoping to use the lake as a base camp to ascend the surrounding mountains, but when we got there, they were engulfed in clouds. One evening, after our camp dinner, the clouds lifted enough to show that recent snowfall had made the mountains tricky to climb without better equipment. Clouds moved back again, but when I woke up the next morning, the lake surface near the shore was covered with a thin pellicle of ice, the tundra was coated with frost, and the mountains were clear for the first time. The temperatures were in the mid-20s degrees F at dawn. The lake was located around 4200 feet elevation and the mountains culminated at slightly above 6000 feet, but the dusting of fresh snow made them feel more grand and wild.

On the way back to Anaktuvuk Pass, we enjoyed a day without rain and the sight of mountains that had been hidden in the clouds before. Anaktuvuk Pass is located at the edge of the north slope of the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in America. The boreal forest reaches its northern limits a few dozen miles to the south. The absence of trees in that area of the park conferred it a distinct character from the park areas I had visited before. For Tommy’s first, and long-awaited trip into Gates of the Arctic National Park, I was pleased that despite its short duration, it was such a satisfying adventure and a great way to experience the park. In the mountains, we had the feeling of having entirely stepped away from civilization, whereas in the village we briefly connected with a different culture and way of life.

Autumn in Alaska II, part 2 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5