“With great risk comes great reward,” is one of Thomas Jefferson’s great quotes. That’s a good way to sum up the Alaska workshop I just finished. We took a gamble on a very out-of-the-way place and the weather, and came up with a big win. Here’s how that came to be.
I’ve been leading photography trips for Pack Paddle Ski for about fifteen years. These trips tend to be a bit exotic and usually overseas, and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. Which is why I was talking with Rick (the owner) about putting together a polar bear trip a couple of years ago. We considered Churchill (Manitoba), but that’s what everyone else does, and is pretty one-dimensional (just polar bears). Instead, Rick suggested we try something different, but that would come with the risk of bad weather and travel problems.
Rick’s been leading backpack and raft trips into the Brooks Range for decades. That’s in far north Alaska, a difficult place to get to, and requires bush planes. Which is how he came to learn about Barter Island. It’s home to Kaktovik, a small Inupiat community just off the mainland in the Beaufort Sea. In time he discovered they still hunt whales, which is allowed because of their traditions and because those whales provide meat to help the isolated community survive. The people take three whales each fall, and after dividing the meat among the community, haul the bones and leftovers out to a spit of sand a ways from the village. At the same time, polar bears in the area have been struggling to survive in a changing climate, which has reduced the ice they depend on to hunt seals. Polar bears have an incredible sense of smell, and it didn’t take them long to discover what the locals call the “bone pile,” near the ocean. And that means Barter Island is a magnet for polar bears in the fall.
Rick realized that combination – a traditional Iunpiat community, whale hunts and dozens (literally) of polar bears would present great photo opportunities. Oh, and we might get Northern Lights too. However, the weather at that time of year (early September) is unpredictable. Temperatures in the 30s to 50s are the norm, as is rain and fog. Also, the small planes that fly from Fairbanks to and from Barter Island are rarely on time and regularly delayed a day or more. In other words, this could be a logistical nightmare. Rick’s solution to this was to build a trip that had us spending three nights on the island, then back to Fairbanks and off to a resort east of there for another three nights. If we were delayed getting to and/or from the island, we’d have some time in the schedule to work with. Oh, and we had to book everything a year in advance.
The first challenge for me was to make sure that anyone who wanted to do this trip understood the challenges and level of difficulty it might entail. You needed to be able to rough it and roll with the punches. Small planes, basic accommodations and a small boat in possibly rough water. Fortunately, after leading trips for many years, I quickly had a small group (six plus me) that could take whatever this trip threw at us.
And you know what? We were incredibly lucky. While our flights out and back were both delayed, we made it on the scheduled days. The locals had already gotten two of their whales before we arrived, and they got the third the day after, so we were able to witness that. And the weather was unusual, in a good way. Sunny and relatively warm, with calm waters. When we commented on how beautiful it was, our guide said, “Yeah, we get a day like this every ten years or so.”
Not only was the trip to the island a great success, but the second part of the trip, to Chena Hot Springs, was incredible as well. Fall foliage, sunny and warm, and some amazing Northern Lights. Oh, and a moose or two.
Enough talk. Let me show you some of the photos and what’s happening with each one. One technical note before getting to the photos: since we’d be doing a lot of our photography from a boat, with long lenses, I reminded everyone to stay at high shutter speeds (preferably above 1/1000). For the Nikon shooters in the group, I suggested they use the Auto ISO Sensitivity option, which let them set a minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO. That’s why you’ll see those photos of mine from the boat at either 1/1250 (when the boat was fairly steady) or 1/1600 (when there was more movement), and some ISO numbers that seem a bit strange.
And if you’d like to join me on a different adventure, but a more predictable one than this, I’m headed to Peru in April of 2018. It’s a great trip, filled with culture, history and great people photography. Plus, of course, Machu Picchu! There are still a few spots left, so don’t wait too long to book. You can find photos from the last trip here, as well as a write-up about it here. And the complete itinerary, plus registration information, is on Pack Paddle Ski’s website here.
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