We were in Fairbanks, Alaska to photograph the Northern Lights, but they weren't cooperating. It was mid-March and we had already spent three nights standing on frozen lakebeds waiting for the show that the University of Alaska lights-prediction-center confidently said would appear. When we weren't outside in the cold, we had our alarms set every hour or two during the night so that we could alternate going outside to check the sky. More nothing. After all we'd timed the trip to coincide with the equinox because of the heightened solar activity, a necessary ingredient for the phenomena. We also thought March might give us above zero temperatures -- read: conditions endurable by mere mortals -- and enough daylight to capture other photographic targets of opportunity, remembering that there are no sure things in photography.
The "we" mentioned above was myself, Don, another freelance photographer and Bruce, a tag-along friend. We had already begun to consider salvage options for the trip. I had heard it was possible to land on skis on one of the glaciers created by Mt. McKinley (Denali) and thought images from such an experience would make me forget about the lights. Don had a brand new Mamiya 645, and felt some close-ups of the peak might allay his disappointment. Bruce just wanted to see some good stuff. So being a grounded pilot (one without a current medical certificate) familiar with charter operations, I got on the phone and started calling the bush-mail carriers about a photo-charter.
"The avalanche danger is too high this time of year to land on Ruth Glacier," I quickly learned, "the Park Service doesn't let us land until late April".
"It might take a month to get a day clear enough to get good views of the mountain even from the air" reported another. Not very reassuring, even for an optimist.
By now the three of us had developed relationships with several of the airline schedulers, since we practically haunted their offices during the dull gray days waiting for a clearing. Probably out of self-defense (although they were very nice about it) they began to take an interest in our project.
Finally, after a particularly depressing weekend, Monday morning brought a real storm. Close to a foot of snow, high winds, temps of 5 below -- just what we needed to clear the atmosphere…as long as the storm didn't last all spring. (It was hard to believe that two outdoor photographers were praying for a blizzard.)
Tuesday morning things looked great: clear and glorious, with unlimited visibility. After breakfast we called one of the airlines, and they said they had several aircraft down for unscheduled maintenance, but they would see what they could do. After a day-long "half-hour" they called back with the news that they had arranged with another company who had a plane available for the afternoon. We should show up at noon.
"How quickly can you get us down to Denali", we asked Bill the pilot after barely shaking hands.
"We've been waiting more than a week for this stuff to blow away," he informed us.
After virtually no paperwork and a quick "you guys don't have any booze with you do you" from him, (no mention of guns or bombs) we were off.
On the way down we told Bill we wanted to spend an hour or so photographing Denali beginning with its north flank and then moving to the East and then south, getting as close as possible to the summit. We then wanted to fly a hundred miles east over to the town of Glenellen, and then 100 miles north up the East side of the Alaska Range, flying low over Isabel Pass for low altitude shots of the Paxson Valley.
This was a route we had driven several days before and were itching to see from the air. We also asked him to watch for any significant wildlife, as we would like to get low enough to photograph them. He told us we would have to stay below 13,000 feet around Denali because the Piper Navaho aircraft was unpressurized, but he said we would not be disappointed with scenes of the 20,000-foot mountain from that elevation. As for our low altitude work, he promised to get us as low as we could stand. He didn't mislead us on either count.
The Navaho fuselage is quite small, and at six-foot three, I could not stand in the cabin. The back four seats (out of eight) had been removed for our charter which gave us the freedom to shoot from either side without a wing to impede visibility. After takeoff, we confirmed that the day was truly superlative, visibility must have been over a hundred miles in every direction. It was going to take thirty minutes to get down to Denali and we were transiting at about four thousand feet. At that altitude, the cabin was cool but comfortable and window condensation was not a problem. It soon would be.
After confirming the route, Don and I used the rest of the time to set up some procedures. Even though it was a small plane, we had headsets and a mic to converse with Bill, telling him what we wanted to do in a specific situation, could we go around for another pass, etc. Bruce, sitting in the copilot seat, was in charge of remembering where we had been on the map, as Don and I couldn't possibly handle that and shoot. We tried to find as comfortable a position on the floor as possible for shooting but ended up kneeling most of the time. This produced very sore knees the next day from the metal seat-tracks in the floor. We began to get an idea which windows were the most stained and to be avoided (usually worked), which ones had polarization that might interfere with our polarizers (sometimes worked), and whether the two of us could shoot simultaneously out of the same side of the airplane (didn't work). We began to realize how much of a problem the sun reflections in the window would be, we both had forgotten our rubber lens shields -- doubly bad, as they also would have helped absorb the nontrivial vibrations.
As we approached Denali it was difficult to keep our emotions in check. On this most beautiful of days, the tallest mountain in North America looked absolutely spectacular. We had to continually remind ourselves that we could look later, we had to shoot now. Also as we approached we began to climb, and soon the cabin cooled and condensation began to appear on the windows. Bill was trying to compensate with the environmental control system, but it was a losing proposition. Needless to say we got very busy very quickly.
As we approached the 13,000-foot ceiling, the windows required wiping with a towel after every two or three shots. The North side of the mountain is unbelievable, regally towering over its surroundings. Immense canyons and ice flows began to appear, and Don and I were regularly bumping into each other as we positioned ourselves for the best shot. We were also breathless from the elevation. By now we were kneeling all the time, dogging back and forth from right side to left, changing lenses, changing filters, and reloading film, and quite frequently fighting the effects of increased gravity brought on by aircraft maneuvers. All our carefully organized equipment was in disarray five minutes after we began shooting. I soon clipped an edge off my graduated neutral density filter with the toe of my boot -- after all, I am 6 foot 3 and I needed the boots to keep warm. Luckily, I had a back up.
The sun angle even at midday at this latitude at this time of year provided ample shadowing to highlight the crevasses in the glaciers and we had plenty of contrast even in the early afternoon. Around Denali the sun was mostly off the left wing, and though we had our doubts about the quality of images we would get through the windows (into the sun) the scenery demanded that we continued trying. A few of them turned out.
As we left the mountain we descended to a more benign altitude; the windows were easier to manage and our breathing became more natural. Shortly as we flew over the Susitna River a voice came on the headset "wolves, two wolves on the riverbed".
"Let's go get 'em," we responded almost in unison.
On our way down just as Don and I were changing lenses, someone said "several moose in the grove of trees on the far shore".
From our moving platform a few hundred feet over the river we never got the wolves in our viewfinders, they were too fast. We did get off a couple of shots of the moose, but between the aircraft maneuvers required by curves in the river, the bumpiness of low-level flight, and the 100 mph-plus airspeed, any useful images of the animals was impossible. We both knew the realities of airborne animal photography: a much slower aircraft, one with removable windows, etc., but we wanted to try.
After climbing out from the riverbed, the left side provided views of the universally heralded Denali Highway, sometimes with the Alaskan Pipeline in the field of view. It was a strange juxtaposition, the angular pipeline with a service road beside it, linear signs of man amid the curves and irregularities of the peaks, palisades, and frozen streambeds of the northern Alaskan Range. As a Sierra Club member, I am as green as the next person, but somehow the pipeline looked less offensive than I had expected.
The last waypoint on our circular route was the very north end of the range containing Mounts Deborah, Moffat and Hayes, and this provided my favorite image from the trip. By now, mid-afternoon, a pressure differential had developed between one side of the range and the other. The winds blowing west to east over the peaks were creating low-pressure-condensation (clouds) downwind of the summits. This in turn provided an "action element" in a scene containing outstanding color and light. I went through a 36-shot roll of film trying to create just a fractional representative of the image in the window. One turned out, and it hangs on my office wall.
Descending toward Fairbanks, Don and I exchanged high-fives across the aisle and slumped into exhaustion. Four hours had elapsed in an instant. It had been hard work, but some of the most enjoyable that I, as a photographer, had ever attempted. And I hadn't even seen my images. Now my problem as a writer was to make some notes on the trip, as I worried that the intensity of what I had seen and done would soon fade. I needn't have worried, as one year later that has yet to happen.
When arranging photo charters in Fairbanks, and I have always used Warbelows Air Ventures 3758 University Avenue South, Fairbanks, AK 99709, (907) 479-5054 or www.warbelows.com as they are the biggest bush airline serving central Alaska. If they can't satisfy your need, they are very good at coming up with a satisfactory alternate. Their marketing manager is Ed Peebles and his direct line is (907) 322-7944 or email@example.com. Rates for two engine airplanes are steep, about $450 per hour. Single engine, two seat airplanes are cheaper, but still not cheap, at about $175 per hour. Alaska is "difficult to get your arms around" from the ground, which motivates a lot of people to flightseeing. The Fairbanks Visitor Information people are also a good source for flightseeing information, and they are at 550 1st Ave. downtown, (907) 456-5774 or (800) 327-5774 or visit www.explorefairbanks.com.