Ranch land in southwestern Colorado
How long have you been into photography? Are you just starting out? If so, you’re in for an adventure! Learning how to make images you’re really proud of (as opposed to snapshots) is much more involved than it may seem at first. That’s part of what makes it so fun!
We all come to photography in ways unique to us. I believe strongly that there is no “right” way to learn photography. But I also think there are things worth focusing on and things that only serve to distract you as you mature as a photographer.
Photography is interesting in that you can pick it up fairly easily, and yet struggle for years trying to get truly good images. Anyone can take a picture. And these days especially, everyone does. But it’s a different ballgame altogether when it comes to creating images that look good hanging in a gallery. Photography is like any art form. It takes practice and dedication to produce something that is worthy of being called art.
Every post in my ongoing Friday Foto Talk series is, of course, about learning photography. But this short three-part series gets away from the theme of how to do photography. Instead it covers how best to learn photography.
Spruce and aspen, Colorado Rockies
- Make sure you know what you’re getting into. As just mentioned, serious photography is a fairly intense undertaking, and that applies to both your time and money. While you certainly don’t have to spend as much money as camera companies would like you to think, you’ll still put a serious dent in your bank account. Also, you will be investing a large amount of time in order to get good. Much of it will be alone. Make sure you are ready for that. If you’re not ready, that’s perfectly fine. If you just want to record life – its milestones and funny moments, a bit of its beauty – there’s nothing wrong with sticking to snapshots. Leave the serious shooting to those who want to invest the time and money. Don’t feel pressured to become a photographer if your interest is only casual.
Weather moves into a spruce forest in the southern Colorado Rockies.
- Think about how you want to learn the basics. This isn’t really about what kind of learner you are. After all, ultimately we all need to practice something to really learn it. However, in order to learn basic principles, you’ll need to take advantage of books, videos, classes or workshops to one degree or another. Personally, I like books as long as they’re good. I got a lot out of Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Photography Field Guide, for example. Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Books (vol. 1-3) give great tips on how to shoot a wide variety of subjects. He also has a well-regarded training website, chock full of training videos.
- Workshops can be a fun and engaging way to learn. But they’re also expensive and can include too many other (travel) aspects besides learning photography. They are also mostly run by folks with no teacher training. Good ones are certainly worthwhile, but are probably best done further down the road, after you’ve gotten the basics down. The worst workshops are merely some guy’s (or gal’s) attempt to have you help pay for his trip to shoot in an exotic locale. Unfortunately the latter are ubiquitous. A regular photography class with field trips may be a better option for you.
Are you tired of fall colors yet? San Juan Mtns., Colorado
- Get the right gear, but no more. More on this in a later post. For now just realize you’ll need to strike a balance. You need enough gear of sufficient quality of course. But you also need to avoid going overboard.
- No holding back. Once you decide you’re going to learn to produce great images, you have to focus your energies. Don’t let anything become an excuse. Absorb and learn. Get out and shoot anytime you get a chance. From the beginning you should adopt a mindset that allows (almost) nothing to come between you and a great image.
- Patience is key. You won’t get good right away. Every new photographer thinks he or she can shorten the learning curve, and many even think they can leapfrog ahead by buying high-end, pro-style gear. Believe me, the saying “Your first 10,000 photos are your worst” is true for all of us. Depending on how much you shoot, it will take at least one, probably two years of serious shooting to become a decent to good photographer.
Do you have any experiences to relate about learning photography? Anything you would recommend or avoid? Please comment below. Do you have any questions to ask about this topic? No matter how irrelevant they seem to be, I want to hear them. So please don’t hesitate. Stay tuned for Part II, where you’ll find more tips on how best to learn photography. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!
The sun sets on golden aspen in leaf as viewed from atop a ridge of burned trees.
Quaking aspen in peak color not far from Telluride, Colorado.
Earlier this year I took a break from serious photography for a few months. Finally in late July I purchased a new DSLR and began shooting seriously again. Although my break was essentially forced on me by the loss of a camera, I now see the benefits (and cautions) of purposefully taking a break from shooting. Here are a few things I learned.
Why take a Break?
- Burnout: If you are shooting a bunch for a long time you will undoubtedly become better with all that practice. But you may also reach a point of diminishing returns. It’s possible, even for the most enthusiastic photographer, to get tired of it. And as soon as you begin to lose even a little motivation, you are not doing as good a job. You stay in your comfort zone. You don’t work quite as hard for that image. If you find yourself not searching as much for unique compositions; if you’re shooting the same subjects in the same sort of light, if you aren’t working the subject like you used to, you could be burned out. And it could be solved simply by taking a break.
- New Creative Outlet: Although you can certainly continue to shoot while trying your hand at painting or writing, for example, it may be best depending on your personality and time demands to focus your attention and efforts solely on the new undertaking, without the distraction of shooting.
- New Subject or Genre: If you want to transition from one type of photography to something completely different, you’ll need to learn some things. Of course you will need to shoot to learn, but before you do this it may be advantageous to take a break from all shooting. Then you can read about and view images of the new genre. Also, you’re going to define a different style, or at least a variation on your shooting style. This takes some time and some thinking. It may help, before you jump right into the new genre, to pause and view it from an outsider’s perspective. While doing this you can do some serious thinking about how you want to approach the new thing.
- Renew your Passion: This reason is relevant to all of the above points. For example, if you will be changing photography genres, taking a break will help you really get into it when you return to shooting. This goes double if you are borderline burnt out. In fact, it may be because you are burnt out that you consider a new type of photography or a new creative outlet in the first place. I’ve found that photography is no different than anything else. In order to do well you need to really go for it. You need to be passionate.
Sunset approaches at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.
Driving up into the mountains of SW Colorado in autumn, and Chimney Rock looms ahead.
Things to Do While on Hiatus
- Think: One thing I’d recommend while on hiatus from photography is to think about how you’re going about it. Are you developing a style you are comfortable with or merely chasing popularity on Facebook? Think about the way you’re shooting, the types of subjects you’re naturally attracted to vs. the ones that elicit the “wows”. Envision the way you’ll go about photography when you return to it.
- Read: This is also a great time to do some reading on photography. While there’s nothing wrong with reading up on technique and how-to, this is the best time to read about the history of photography and some of the great early photographers. Anything that gets your mind working as you reevaluate your approach and style is a great use of your time. And while shooting, especially if you are shooting every day, it’s harder to find the time for this.
- Look at Images of other photographers: I’m not really talking so much about the internet here. It’s more related to the above point. As you read, for example, about Edward Weston or Dorothea Lange, you will naturally be viewing their work too. Of course you can do this while shooting too, but during a pause the effect on you might be different, more conducive to objective analysis of your approach.
- Try something else creative: Even if this is not your reason for taking a pause, it’s a great way to recharge your batteries and broaden your outlook on the arts. Even something as simple as model railroading or origami can pay unexpected and unpredictable dividends when you return to shooting.
- Get your Portfolio squared away: There are plenty of ways to improve your portfolio of images, from re-editing a few of your older pictures to a wholesale reshuffling of the images displayed in your online galleries. Is it time to design or redesign a website? All of this is more easily done when there are no new images coming in. This subject is worth its own post. But a break in shooting is the perfect time to go through your existing portfolio and improve it.
- Get your Images in front of more eyes: After going through your portfolio, the logical next step is to look at ways to promote it. Whether you want to start selling some images, want to get some of them critiqued, or simply want to connect with new people via your images, you now have time to focus on getting your images circulated. Now is also a great time to print some of those you’ve been wanting to print, to look into art shows, farmer’s markets and even galleries.
- Catch up on the Blogging World: You knew this was coming! Now you might be also taking a break from the internet. While that’s worth considering too, there’s no reason it has to be the same time as a photography break. This is a great time to expand (in moderation – see below) your reading and image-viewing online. Find new bloggers and connect more with those you already know. If you don’t blog, why not start one now?
A blustery-cold snow-squall moves in and the fall colors just soften.
A waterfall near Creede, Colo.
Cautions and Caveats
- Getting rusty: It’s very likely that your photography skills will, depending on how long your break is, suffer a decline. But this “rustiness” is only temporary. It’s certainly not a reason, in my opinion, to forego a photography hiatus. Just be aware of it when you return to shooting. Don’t beat yourself up if you screw up some shots that you would’ve nailed before. You’ll get it back.
- Equipment envy: It’s amazing to realize how quickly new camera gear comes out these days. Especially if you decide on a months-long break, there will be new “breakthrough” cameras and other toys to tempt you. Friends you shot with before may have fancy new equipment when you get back together with them. My recommendation is to ignore it. Invest in new gear only if you feel you’re at a point to make it really pay (whether in real money or in significant advantages in your ability to make the images you want). Returning from hiatus you’re unlikely to be at a point where new equipment will pay off. Shoot for awhile first.
- Image envy: It’s probably inevitable that a pause in shooting will enable you to view a lot more online imagery than you previously had time for. Depending on where you are as a photographer, you’ll need to rein in this inclination to a greater or lesser degree. It’s a good idea to search for new and different photographers while on pause, but moderation is the key. Don’t fall into the trap that others are racing ahead of you, or that you’re missing out on a great time of year to shoot (they’re all great!).
- Shooting Casually: I did this but I’m not sure how productive it was. I had a little point and shoot and occasionally shot with that during my break. It was pretty casual but I found myself trying to make the camera do some pretty heavy lifting. While I did get some nice images this way, it sorta defeated the purpose of taking a break. If you’re sure you can do snapshots only and not get too serious, I say go for it. But realize it’s a little like taking a drink or smoking just one cigarette. Realize also that when you return to shooting you’ll need to get completely out of snapshot mode and back into serious shooting. That’s not always easy.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison just before dark, Colorado.
Getting Back into It
I recommend not rushing it. Make sure you’re ready to get back to shooting. It’s okay to miss photography; just don’t use that as an excuse to end your hiatus too soon. When it’s time, you’ll be chomping at the bit but also ready in a patient and measured way. As mentioned, expect some rustiness for awhile. Keep your expectations modest and don’t stress missed shots. Just work at the basics and, as always, let your own unique vision guide you. Have fun!
I have the distinct feeling there is more to this than what I’ve written here. So if you have anything to add, please don’t be shy about commenting. Have you taken a break from photography before? Was it forced on you or voluntary? You may have an argument for or against going on hiatus. Or perhaps you’ve an additional caution or caveat to relate. I will definitely consider it again in the future, despite the drawbacks.
Storm clouds gather and the quaking aspen aren’t bothered at all: San Juan Mountains, Colorado.
Evening comes on after a glorious sunset at Dallas Divide, Colorado.
It’s funny how the shortening days have played havoc with my good intentions to do a Friday Foto Talk this week. But by next Friday it will be different, promise. This is the area I’ve been hanging around lately. Because it’s so darn beautiful! It is an arm of the San Juan Mtns., themselves a part of the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Telluride is just the other side of those mountains.
I was hoping the aspens would still be going here but I didn’t have very high hopes. What a great surprise: they were in their spectacular peak! I’m not one to be on the hotline as far as these things go; I’m sure there’s an app for it. I’d rather be surprised. And I don’t want to avoid going to a place I know is lovely, fall colors or not, based only on some narrow-focused recommendation off the internet.
This was captured atop a ridge when the sun finally cleared the storm clouds lingering over the higher part of this range, which is out of view to the left. I climbed atop this rock and used it and the nice pinyon pine as foreground. I think this image has everything the Rockies are: rugged mountains, golden aspens, pinyon pines and lichen-encrusted metamorphic rock.
I’ve been exploring this area more completely than I have in the past. In fact, I’m right now burning daylight! Since this is my last full day here, I am going to finish this post, stop watching football, and drink the beer I ordered faster than I want to. Hello golden hour! Have a great week everyone.
A beautiful morning and fall colors go together well in the mountains of SW Colorado.
Grass waves in the breeze of dusk in the prairie of western Oklahoma.
I’m not one to apologize for not posting in a long time, but I have to admit to feeling a little guilty just the same. I took a break that was supposed to be just August and maybe part of September. It has stretched for longer than I expected. Guess I just needed to recharge my batteries.
I’m on my second photo trip during that time, and I’ve also been working a lot. I spent the first couple weeks of September in Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and Rocky Mtn. National Parks. Now I’m in SW Colorado and very excited about the upcoming lunar eclipse.
The night before I left on this trip, just after we finished up with the project, I went out to shoot at sunset. I lucked out and found a pretty stretch of tall-grass prairie. Very tall grass, the kind that reaches up to my chin, is something I’ve always loved. With the light very nice, and the only sound some distant coyotes calling, it was a peaceful way to get ready for my trip to the southern Rockies. I know sunsets are a bit cliche, but I’ll never believe they are overdone.
So I just wanted to let everyone know I haven’t dropped out. I’m hitting the blogging trail again! Hope everything is going well with all of you. I can’t wait to get time and check out what you’ve been up to. Have a great week!
Sunset in the tallgrass prairie.
This is the first sunrise with my new camera. I finally ended the drought by recently buying a barely used Canon 6D. I also bought a lens to go with it, a wide-angle zoom that Canon just came out with. It’s the 16-35mm. f/4L. I really haven’t used it much yet. But I’m hoping it is a good landscape lens. This image was shot with a different lens.
Often sunrise is so beautiful over the prairie near where I am right now. The sky can be truly spectacular, even though the terrain is flat. The light fog hanging in the low places was surprising. The nights are so warm here at this time of year that fog rarely forms. I imagine that will change later in the year. But for now the early morning is wonderful. It’s the only time of the day when the temperature is comfortable.
I had to scramble to shoot this right after waking up. I like how it turned out, I’m pretty happy with the camera. It does not focus as well as my 5D III did, but that camera has pro-level autofocus and this one doesn’t. Usually not a problem with the kind of images I generally shoot, but with wildlife or candid shots of people I could see it being an issue. Other than autofocus, plus the fact it is obviously not as well sealed against the weather, I can’t see many differences between the 6D and 5D III. They both have full-frame sensors.
I hope you all are enjoying your summers. I am taking a break from doing Friday Foto Talks in August. I’ll get back to it, promise. Now I’m off to explore this area. I have a few days off, yippee!. Thanks for looking.
First Light on the Prairie (and for me & my new camera)
Danum Valley, Borneo
I am posting this image because I need to post something. I just completed a big post for this week’s Foto Talk. It involved a lot of thought and about 6 hours of work. You will never see it now and I won’t ever see it again either. That’s because I thought it had been saved as a draft by WordPress but it was not. Learn from my mistake and never ever trust WordPress to save any of your work online, no matter how many times it has worked correctly for you before.
I am going to figure out now how to do posts offline, separate from WordPress, and import them into the blog and have them look the way I want. I tried this in the beginning and it was difficult to get the posts to look right. But now I find it is necessary to really learn this before doing any more blogging. All it takes is once to waste hours of work and have it come to nothing for you to commit to doing things differently. So never trust WordPress to save drafts, never.
By the way this is a shot from several years ago when I visited the island of Borneo. It was really a fantastic experience, and I’d really like to go back and dive back into that amazing jungle, however much I hate leeches! Have a great week everyone.
A home in the bush: Alaska
This is follow-up to my post last Thursday on Alaska, sort of a different take on visiting America’s most untamed state. First a disclaimer: I’m not discounting a cruise up the Inside Passage, or an RV-based road-trip to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula. Depending on who you are, those may be good options for your first trip, or if you happen to be elderly. I just know what’s out there, and if I wanted to tour the state in a memorable way I would work in some more adventurous options along with more standard destinations. So here’s my very biased take on visiting the Great Land.
Flying over a glacier in the Alaska Range.
When to Go
This is a fairly simple question. If it’s your first time go in summer, which is May through September in the Southeastern Panhandle, mid-June through mid-August in the far north, and something in-between in the rest of the state. Summer is in full swing throughout Alaska by late May. In June come the longest days, with no real nighttime in most of the state.
You can have rain, clouds and cool weather at anytime during the summer, but it’s a little more likely late in summer into fall. Make sure you have good rain gear. Waterproof hiking boots are worth having as well. Autumn, though short, is very beautiful in Alaska. September is a time when wildlife is very active, and the tundra turns a beautiful gold and red. The mosquitoes are mostly gone, and the few late hatches feature big and slow skeeters.
If it’s your second or third trip consider winter. Especially if you want to see the northern lights. I recall seeing them as early as the beginning of October. If you ski you’ll love the later winter when days get a bit longer. But in the southern part of the state you’ll have plenty of daylight to ski or snowshoe at any time of year. The world-famous Iditarod sled dog race happens in late winter. But a more spectator-friendly race (actually a series of them) happens during Fur Rendezvous. “Fur Rondy” is a fun winter festival in Anchorage that takes place each year in late February. The rest of this post assumes a summertime visit.
Skiing along a creek with sculptures like this is only possible if you visit Alaska in winter.
Snowshoeing doesn’t have to be a trudge, it can be as fun as you want to make it.
Visiting the “Real” Alaska
In order to really see Alaska you need to fly. A helicopter obviously allows you to land in many more places than does a fixed-wing. But it’s amazing how many unlikely landing spots exist for bush planes. If money is truly no object, I recommend hiring a chopper and pilot for several days to a week. If you’re like the rest of us you can probably only afford a scenic flight on a helicopter. Some even land on glaciers, at predetermined spots.
But this isn’t the same as having control of where a chopper goes and where it lands, having the pilot wait for you or pick you up somewhere else. That sort of freedom takes real money for someone whose work doesn’t make it necessary. For most visitors to Alaska, I recommend saving up and budgeting for at least one trip on a bush plane. This gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
I got to fly with an older bush pilot my first summer there. He flew a Caribou and was well-known among pilots and long-time Alaskans. The Caribou was a tail-loading cargo plane used heavily in Vietnam. It had a very short take-off distance for its size. His wings would skim the tops of spruce trees on many landings. In the fall after the field season was over, he crashed and died in the resulting fire. He must have been somehow trapped, unable to walk away (as many bush pilots do) when the plane caught fire. He was mourned throughout the state. Bush pilots: they’re worth their own post.
Climbing in Alaska presents challenges, even for “small” mountains.
If you make the effort there are bragging rights – just remember the picture!
Unless you cheat and use one of these!
But you shouldn’t worry. Given the number of flights there is no significant added hazard to flying in a bush plane compared to jets. Just hop into one and see Alaska. Chartering bush flights can be expensive on your own, but the cost can be mitigated by combining with other people. Even independent travelers have the option of inquiring at the plethora of companies operating out of the sea-plane base at Lake Hood near the Anchorage Airport. You could hook up with like-minded people to organize a charter trip. Whether you do it off the cuff or plan ahead of time, take at least one journey into one of the state’s roadless areas. Don’t skip it.
Views like this one of the Moose’s Tooth are available flight-seeing with a bush pilot.
A Non-Touristy Experience
If I did a trip into bush Alaska, I’d give serious consideration to the southwest. While you’re thinking of joining all the tourists to watch bears fishing at Brooks Camp, think about other options too. The whole region is chock full of wildlife, and because of the marine influence the mosquitoes tend not to be as abundant as the rest of the state (the interior is where mosquitoes hatch in countless numbers).
One great option for a wilderness experience in SW Alaska is to organize a fly-in camping/fishing trip to Tikchik Lakes (see image). These are a series of lakes, elongate east-west and strung out in a north-south direction along the front of the little-known Wood River Mountains. I worked in the region for a couple months and it was some of the wildest country I’ve ever been in. It also had the best fishing I’ve ever done, hands down.
Tikchik Lakes in SW Alaska has some great scenery and fishing.
Camping for a week would allow you to decompress in total wilderness. The lakes to the north of the Tikchik chain have very little tall vegetation surrounding them. You could roam the mountains, full of wildlife, no trails necessary. Take a can of bear spray. Fish to your heart’s content. Lunker lake trout oblige you anytime of day.
All it would take is a flight from Anchorage to Dillingham, then a bush plane to the lakes. If you get a group together, hire a Beaver (largish float plane) or Otter to take your group plus camping gear & an inflatable raft. If it’s just you and one other, maybe a Cessna would do the trick. The pilot will drop you off and then pick you up on the appointed day. If you want to double-down on the experience, you could paddle down the length of the lakes, connected by spectacular rivers, through huge Wood-Tikchik State Park, all the way back to Dillingham. A few companies do guided trips if you don’t feel confident in organizing your own.
Alaska tundra in early autumn.
There are so many places I can recommend during a visit to Alaska. A drive along the Denali Highway is a great side-trip. It’s not the paved road to the national park; that’s the Parks Hwy. Denali Hwy. is a graded gravel road that takes off east of the park with stupendous views of the Alaska Range (see image at bottom). Also a trip to McCarthy in the Wrangell Mountains is well worthwhile. Visit the old copper mine, situated right along a glacier.
On the Kenai Peninsula, do a halibut fishing trip out of Homer. (Don’t drink too much at the Salty Dog Saloon the night before!). A classic Alaskan experience is sea kayaking out of Seward or Cordoba. Consider a short cruise in Prince William Sound to see the state’s incredible marine life. The Kenai Fjord day-trip out of Seward is inexpensive. And speaking of worthwhile tourist things to do, don’t miss a flight-seeing trip over the Alaska Range. Drive to the small town of Talkeetna to arrange one in a small bush plane.
Hiking in Alaska is unlimited. On the way to Denali, consider a hike into Denali State Park before you get to the (relative) tourist mayhem at the national park. And a hike up into the mountains above Anchorage is a great way to stretch the muscles after your long flight in. Flat-top Mountain, while extremely popular, is a great introduction to Alaska right off the plane. It’s a short but steep climb. There are superb hikes and climbs that take off from the highway south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm.
This remote valley in the Brooks Range may be the furthest from a road I’ve ever been.
A Republic of Rivers
A book called A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon features poems by Robert Service (The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Call of the Wild). I read it when I lived up there. Reason I mention it here is that while Alaska is a land of mountains, it is even more a republic of rivers. Before the plane, rivers were the main way to travel into remote areas of the state, and they remain so in the interior (along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers especially). Boats in the summer, dogsleds and later snow machines in winter. (Snow machines are called snowmobiles outside the state.)
Once I took a boat trip up the Kuskokwim River out of McGrath. It was a totally different experience from any other I had in Alaska. More like traveling upriver in the Amazon or Congo Basins than in the far north. It was a very “Heart of Darkness” experience.
Mt Drum in the Wrangell Mtns. rises above the Copper River.
If you like river trips, specifically paddling downriver, Alaska has a life-time’s worth. In the western Brooks Range, the amazingly clear Salmon is a gorgeous river. I worked along the Salmon for a summer. It’s one of the only places I’ve been where you could walk up to a big river, dip your hands in, and drink cold refreshing water with no worries.
In the NW Brooks Range, the Noatak River drains the largest undisturbed watershed in North America. It’s a great river for canoes. In the central Brooks, the John, the Kilik, Hula Hula and that true gem, the Alatna, are all great arctic wilderness floats. Research all of these and consider a guiding company; there are several.
In Lake Clark National Park in the southwestern part of Alaska, you can do combination hiking/rafting trips that will take you into wildife country with great fishing and few mosquitoes. The hard to pronounce Tlikakila is fairly short but extremely scenic.
Hiking in Alaska is often not easy but there are plenty of pay-offs.
The old copper mine near McCarthy was once the world’s largest producer.
Combining Alaska and Canada on a river trip is a fantastic idea since at least two of the world’s greatest river floats cross the boundary. The Alsek runs through Kluane in Canada and ends in Glacier Bay, Alaska. It is serious business, involving real skill (and $, a helicopter portage is involved). The Firth is an extremely remote river trip that starts near Alaska’s border with the Northwest Territory in Canada. It ends in the Beaufort Sea.
There are guided trips to all these places; do the proper research and pick a company with a good reputation. Many of the state’s rivers (and most of the above) lack many big rapids. They’re suitable for beginning paddlers and perfect for canoes or touring kayaks. If you just want an easy to access but rollicking whitewater ride that does have big rapids, check out the Nenana on the way to Denali National Park. No planning required; just stop at one of the companies along the banks and go rafting! Aside from that there are plenty of whitewater options for kayakers and serious rafters.
I really hope you can visit this place one day and experience some of the fun and adventure I had up there. Or if you’ve been before, I hope you can go back and see more. Because there is always more to see. Alaska never stops surprising you, never stops knocking your socks off. So next spring when you hear that familiar sound and look up, when you see that V-shaped formation of geese flying, stop and think a minute. They must know something. Go north!
September along the Denali Hwy. provides colorful views of the eastern Alaska Range.
Glacier flying in the Alaska Range.
For what a lot of folks call “Throwback Thursday”, I’m going to post a few old film shots of a place near and dear to my heart. While I make it a policy never to apologize for any of my pictures, I will say that the camera gear I had for these pictures of the past was not up to the high quality of either that era’s best film stuff or even today’s digital.
Alaska is where I spent my twenties, not so long ago (well, okay, I lied; it was awhile back!). After graduating college I drove the Alcan up with some buddies. Alcan, if you don’t know, stands for the Alaska-Canada Highway, which then was still gravel-surfaced over much of the northern stretches. I rode in a little 4×4 Subaru wagon owned by my friend and college roommate. He was born in Alaska & had attended the Univ. of Oregon with me.
Unfortunately we were delayed when his car was nearly totaled. We hit a bear! I remember the horrible feeling I had when I stupidly got out and listened to the wounded bruin crashing around & roaring in the brush below the road. I also remember the scenery getting much more spectacular when we crossed into Alaska (Kluane excepted, sorry Canada!).
Some old cabins at a mine site just west of the Denali National Park boundary.
Near the village of Kiana in the Brooks Range.
Alaska is where I burned all that ridiculous energy of youth. It’s where I learned the false lesson that I was invincible. The truth is that while young we tend to get second chances. It’s as if we’re all cats with 9 lives, at least in youth. We use up most of those chances in our late teens and twenties. Then when we are older, if we try to skate along the edge, we almost always get spanked hard for it. One of the sad parts of getting older is not being able to get away with very much anymore. I used up nearly all of my 9 lives in Alaska.
I was a geologist there, which means I got around and learned much about the land and the culture of the natives. I remember getting into intense pickup basketball games with Inuit youths in the village of Kiana above the Arctic Circle. Basketball is as big in bush Alaska as it is in Indiana. I recall marveling at how impossibly cute the children were. And how some men would drink themselves into oblivion. And how native men would head off into the wild on a moment’s notice to hunt when we thought they had signed up to work for us.
Out of the six summers I spent up there, two were in the Brooks Range, one was in the Alaska Range, one in the southwestern part of the state, one roaming the interior, and one (the 1st) in Anchorage and various other places. I spent one autumn in the southeastern panhandle. Winters were mostly spent in Anchorage, learning how to ski well. What else is there to do in the long winter besides drink? Whichever of these you choose, you’ll have plenty of practice, and you’ll get damn good at it!
An unnamed peak my friend & I climbed and named Broken Horn for the dall mountain sheep we saw up there.
Alaska embraces extremes, the edge: its people as well as the land. There is no halfway. Incidentally, the book I think really gets Alaska right is Going to Extremes by Joe Mcginnis. I’m not sure which is truer: is it the character of the place that makes the people more extreme, or do those who move to Alaska become more extreme? I suspect there’s a bit of both going on. Those born there, like my college roommate, are different from the rest of us. He would routinely sleep 12 hours in winter’s long nights. Then in summer he would get by on 4-5 hours.
I still have affection for the place, which means I really loved it when I was there! I remember getting a little airsick in a chopper and offering the pilot the excuse that I wanted to sample a rock formation below. Not really fooled, he set me down and went to refuel. After the ship’s noise faded away, I lay down and buried my face into the moist tundra. I did what I had been wanting to do, without knowing it, for a long time. I gave Alaska (and the Earth by extension) a big, hour-long hug.
Caribou in the Brooks Range.
You may think, given how I love the “Great Land”, that I would visit often. But other than a couple trips in the 90s I have moved on. Part of me regrets this. I’ve never been anywhere that I felt matched me as well as good ole AK. I really love the Pacific Northwest, but it really isn’t the same. Alaska seemed to know it had my number. I still wonder how I was able to leave all those years ago.
But I did leave. I can still see those fall colors along the Copper River in the Wrangell Mountains, dusted over with termination dust (season’s first snow). Autumn, that season of change when I get itchy feet, was the only time it was possible to leave. After seeing a stupendous display of northern lights on a freezing night at Thompson Pass (the only time I actually heard them), I drove away for good.
To be young and full of piss and vinegar again!
It really is time to go back for a visit. But both Alaska and I have changed so much. I am worried I will be disappointed. I don’t want to be a tourist there, despite knowing a bunch of ways to get off the beaten track. Of course it would be interesting to see the effects of climate change, which are quite obvious in a high-latitude place like Alaska. Especially for someone who once knew it well and has been away so long. But I have my doubts about going back now.
Well, that’s enough reminiscing. I sure hope there’s such a thing as reincarnation, because I really really want to do that young & strong thing again! Stay tuned for another post on Alaska, this time giving some advice for a visit that hits some good sights off the beaten tourist track. Thanks so much for reading!
An early winter’s sunset over Cook Inlet as viewed from the Chugach Mtns. just above Anchorage.