North side of the Hayes Range: Final Post

The snow line slowly dropped and eventually reached our tent

The snow line slowly dropped and eventually reached our tent

The sound was different, it wasn’t the constant thumping we had been hearing for nearly forty hours. It was a softer sound and I recognized it right away, snow. I peeked out of the tent and felt the wet snow pelt my face, it was starting to stick, cooling the fire-red tundra.

The day before was a test of character. It rained the entire night before and continued to rain throughout the day, without a break. I spent the morning in the cook shelter brewing tea and listening to music. I watched the little battery symbol on my Ipod as it slowly reached its end, finally turning red. I became very selective of each song, knowing any one of them could be the last. Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah would be the last song of the trip, fitting I thought.

Barry came into the shelter, he was rattled,

“I can’t stand the sound of the rain anymore, its driving me crazy.”

“let’s go hiking then” I responded.

“I don’t want to get soaked.” he grumbled. So we had lunch and I then a reluctantly put on all my rain gear and committed myself to being wet. I followed a gentle creek up into the mountains. The bed was a jumble of interesting, colorful rocks. I made some hasty images, trying to keep my gear from getting completely soaked.

The creek I followed.

The creek I followed.

Once I reached the snow line I traversed into the fog, skirting around rotten spires of black rock. I then travelled down a long soggy ridge back to camp. The rain had let up a little and Barry was wandering around outside trying his hardest not to go insane. We had an early dinner and reluctantly returned to the tent for a long restless night.

The snow was a welcomed change, anything was better than rain. We made breakfast and packed up the drenched tent. We travelled back across the plateau in whiteout conditions. I focused on trying to not fall into one of the many soggy holes that were now hidden under the snow. We didn’t see any caribou this time, but I am sure they heard us.

Whiteout!

Whiteout!

We returned to our camp site down in the valley. We called our pilot on our SAT phone and let him know that we were back at the pick up spot. It was now going to be a waiting game, waiting for the weather to improve and then waiting for the sound of the Super Cub. During dinner the wolves began their serenade and I decided I was going to see if I could find them and if I was lucky, get their pictures.

Near the edge of the far bank I came across some new tracks, bear tracks. These were the first signs of bears I had found during the whole trip. As I explored, the fog level sank down to the ground. It was getting dark and difficult to see, with my recently acquired knowledge of our other valley resident, I figured it was prudent that I return to camp.The wolves would stay elusive.

We both slept well and we were excited with the prospect of flying out the next day.

Around 5:30am I heard the wolves again. Like a siren call, I slowly dragged myself out of my warm cocoon.  I didn’t expect to see the wolves but I figured I would see if the fog bank was any higher. I was shocked to see clear skies. I quickly began packing my gear, I needed to have all my stuff packed and at the pick-up site before I ran off to take pictures, just in case the airplane came. The light was getting wild, I cursed as the mountains began to glow a scarlet red. I lugged my poorly packed pack with random pieces of gear dangling off like Medusa’s snakes. I dropped it at the landing strip and then ran to the other side of the valley. I needed to get up on the ridge before the sun came up over the horizon.

As difficult as it was I knew I had to sacrifice the alpenglow on the mountains in order to make it up onto the ridge before the sunrise. My legs burned as I struggled up the steep bank. I was wearing way too many clothes but I knew I would cool down once I got to the top. I had my camera, a lens and my tripod. I had a put few bars in my pocket for breakfast on the run.

I reached the top, sweating profusely. After a quick look around I began the process of trying to find a good composition for the light that was about to arrive. I watched the light hitting the mountains and tried to predict where it would hit along the ridge.

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge.

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge.

This is the game you play in the mountains. You can either find a great composition and wait, hoping the light hits it right or you can wait for the light and then find a subject that goes with it. The late Galen Rowell used to talk a lot about light, how the light choose what he was going to make images of. I try to straddle both styles, get myself into a place I think might work and then if it doesn’t, be ready to abandon my previsualized image and chase the light.

Looking north into the valley where we camped.

Looking north into the valley where we were camped.

And chase the light I did. When the light finally arrived i realized my precomposed image wasn’t going to work.  So I darted up and down the ridge making photographs in all directions, finding subjects that fit the light.

looking north east, the clouds would soon engulf us.

looking north-east, the clouds would soon engulf us.

After over an hour of intense image making, I took a break and ate something. The fog was beginning to form off to the east and soon the sun got absorbed. My concern about the light quickly changed to concern on whether the pilot was gong to make it before the flight window closed.

Fall colors were just beginning to hit their prime.

Fall colors were just beginning to hit their prime.

Last image before the fog rolled in.

Last image before the fog rolled in.

I headed down the steep ridge and met up with Barry at the landing spot. Fog was coming in but there was still a big blue hole above us and all the mountains could still be seen. After a few minutes the plane arrived. Barry went first.

I wanted a little time to myself in mountains, some time to reflect about the trip and maybe get a chance to see those wolves, but they would remain ghosts with only their eerie song embedded in my memory. I thanked them loudly for waking me up that morning, but the only response was my own voice echoing off the mountains.

North side of the Hayes Range: Part Two

Skull and fall colors. Eastern Alaska Range

Skull and fall colors. Wet and rainy weather is perfect for detail shots and can really bring out the colors.

Rain can be tough. The constant pattering on a thin sheet of nylon above your head can break the hardest man. Two ways I combat the inevitable slip  into insanity is either with music/radio or to just suck it up and go out in it!

During our first stretch of rain, which lasted thirty hours or so, I chose music and a selection of podcast. This entertainment, along with chores like boiling water for tea, made time go by quickly, without much madness. Barry read cheap crime novels (a popular diversion for a number of my outdoor companions) and faded in and out of sleep.

We decided Wednesday night that the next morning we would get up and head towards the Hayes Glacier, no matter what the weather. This was a hard decision for Barry, who is a fair weather backpacker that would rather sit it out then pack up in the rain. But I knew if we were going to get anywhere, we needed to go.

Late that night there was glorious silence, the rain had stopped. However, each time I would drift into sleep I would be startled by the sound of wolves. Sometimes they would be on one side of the valley, then a few minutes later I would hear howling on the other. Unlike the constant sound of rain on nylon, the wolves were a pleasing disturbance, reminding me that I was in a truly wild place.

The morning was cloudy but without moisture. We packed up quickly and followed a caribou track up a steep bank onto the plateau. We traveled slowly across spongy terrain, avoiding deep pools of water and tiny streams that were hidden in the mossy surface. About half way across we came upon a group of caribou, young males and females. We stood there watching them run back and forth, trying to decide what to do about us. Finally they just went back to grazing lichen, occasionally looking up to see what we were doing. The sun was peeking out on occasion and the clouds were swirling around the big mountains, it made a fantastic back drop for the caribou.

Caribou under unnamed mountains, Deborah-Hayes range, Eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under unnamed mountains, Deborah-Hayes range, Eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under Mount Hayes, Eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under Mount Hayes, Eastern Alaska Range

After spending time with the caribou we headed to the edge of the plateau, looking off, over the lower, moraine covered Hayes Glacier.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, Eastern Alaska Range.

Beautiful mixed light, my favorite light for landscape photography. Hayes Glacier, Eastern Alaska Range.

The weather was deteriorating and I wanted to take some pictures before it fell apart. We descended down a steep bank and crossed two streams before coming to a relatively flat spot. We put up the tent and the cook tarp and I quickly ran off to create images.

Mixed light and changing colors. Eastern Alaska Range

Mixed light and changing colors. Eastern Alaska Range

Good bye mountains.

Good bye mountains.

We also had a camping companion, a very large bull caribou. It appeared we had camped near his rutting pit. He would end up being a constant figure throughout the next two days.

Our camping companion.

Our camping companion.

We had a great dinner outside, under the darkening skies and within the presence of our caribou friend.  A few minutes after crawling into our bags, the rain began again.

North side of the Hayes Range: Part One

Last light on Mount Shand

Last light on Mount Shand, Eastern Alaska Range

“I feel like we are on a different trip” Barry said, as we cowered under our tiny cook shelter, the rain pouring relentlessly outside the thin nylon. He was referring to the first two days of the trip.

Two days earlier we drove the six hours from Anchorage to Delta Junction under blue bird skies, all the elusive mountains were out: Marcus Baker, Sergeant Robinson, Drum, Sanford, White Princess, Moffit and Hayes. It was a glorious drive that kept spirits high.

Our goal was to fly that afternoon, into a remote “strip” next to the Trident Glacier. I had been waiting and waiting to go to this area. I knew it had the potential for great imagery, especially if I could nail the fall colors. I also knew it would be expensive and the weather could easily be crap. It was a risky trip to take.

But this year had been rough and I hadn’t gotten as many images as I had hoped, so I decided to go for it, one last-ditch effort to get some solid images for the project.

I left Delta Junction around 4:30, riding behind pilot Jim Cummings in his Super Cub. It was a great flight, clear as could be. I fired question after question about the area at Jim, who knows the Deltas and the Debora-Hayes mountains better than anyone.

We approached our “strip” about 40 minutes later. When I say strip, I mean a dried up river bed that doesn’t have too many large wash outs or large rocks that could flip the plane. When the plane came to a stop, I knew something was wrong.

“Were not in the right spot’ I said.

“Where did you want to go?” Jim questioned.

“The strip next to the glacier”.

“Oh, that spot got washed out this year.” Jim replied while unloading the gear. I was disappointed. But we were at least close, about three miles from where I wanted to land and four miles  from the spot I wanted to camp at.

Jim roared off and an hour and a half later he returned with Barry. I had started to get impatient, anxious to get moving, we had four miles to cover and I wanted to get there while the light was still good. We dumped a cache quickly near the drop off spot and headed up a great route along the lateral moraine of the Trident Glacier.

The lack of water was starting to worry us as we trudged up the glacier’s edge. There didn’t seem to be any decent camping spots with potential for good images either. When we finally reached a good spot, next to a nice clear stream, we found another tent with two sheep hunters hanging out. We pushed past their spot into the fading light.

At the end of the moraine we came across two small alpine lakes.

“Perfect” I thought, good water and some possible reflection images. The lake I was looking for,  which I scouted on Google Earth, was farther down along the glacier’s edge, but is was just a silty hole, with little potential for good images, water or camping.

Setting up the tent as the last light fades on Mount Moffit

Setting up the tent as the last light fades on Mount Moffit

We set up the tent as the last light faded on Mount Moffit. I hate arriving to camps late. I didn’t have a chance to make solid photographs or scout a location for the morning light. We cooked dinner in the clear, cold darkness, under amazing stars.

The next morning I woke up at 5:30.  My goal was to get up and find a foreground for Mount Moffit. The small lakes near our tent were filled with floating cotton from the Cottongrass and the reflection wasn’t really working. The puddles had a thin sheet of ice, a testament to the cold overnight temps. I ran around the area trying to find a good foreground. I cursed as the mountain turned pink with the morning light. Finally after pacing around tundra  like a mad man I cam across two more lakes with perfect reflections of the mountains. The light was no longer pink but the foreground was just coming into the sun. It was windy so I had to boost the camera’s ISO up in order to stop motion.

Mount Moffit Reflection, Eastern Alaska Range.

Mount Moffit Reflection, Eastern Alaska Range.

Detail of Moffit's western North Ridge, Mount Hayes in the background

Detail of Moffit’s North Ridge, Mount Shand in the background

And another view of Mount Moffit.

And another view of Mount Moffit.

One of the problems when chasing light and when you have such a dominant subject like the towering Mount Moffit, is that you have trouble composing images without the main attraction. After an hour of photographing a variety of views of Moffit, I realized I needed to try to focus on other subjects.

One trick I learned years ago was to turn around from your “main” subject and look the other way. The light is similar and usually many great images are missed and over-looked.

The lower foothills of the north side of the Eastern Alaska Range.

The lower foothills of the north side of the Eastern Alaska Range.

On the drive up I noticed right away the lack of fall colors. Usually by the last week of August, the tundra flora is getting red and orange, but I had to really search out colors, everything seemed a week late.

Around noon, we decided, with hesitation, to leave the awesome spot under the glorious Mount Moffit. I felt confident that I had enough solid images of Moffit and the surrounding area. I knew the weather wasn’t supposed to hold and I felt the urge to begin our migration to towards Mount Hayes.

After a failed short cut over the wrong pass we ended at our cache around 4:00pm. Clouds had already moved in. We found a nice clear stream next to the bank and a really nice spot to camp. I wanted to keep moving but we both decided that we didn’t want to get stuck at night searching for a good water source and camp spot, so we decided to stay put and committed to getting up early to continue our trip.

After dinner it began to rain lightly and with the rain came a dinner guest, a large bull caribou. I followed him around the willows, trying to get a clear shot. He didn’t seem too concerned by me, which was a little disheartening, knowing that there were hunters in the area.

I played cat and mouse in the willows with this fantastic bull.

I played cat and mouse in the willows with this fantastic bull.

I have always considered seeing caribou in the wild as a good omen and went to sleep confident that the rest of the trip was going to be a good one.

Back from the Eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under unnamed mountains, Deborah-Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range.

Caribou under unnamed mountains, Deborah-Hayes Mountains (The tall dome is peak 10,515) Eastern Alaska Range.

In 2006, my good friend Opie and I tried to ski across the north side of the Deborah-Hayes range. We failed miserably, but it was a memorable trip. The snow conditions were character building, a hard inch thick crust over two feet of sugar. And on our return, the Delta River had opened, so we had to cross knee-deep ice water in our ski boots.

During that trip I kept thinking how awesome it would be to come to the area in the fall. It had the potential of being one of the most spectacular areas in the whole Alaska Range.

So this fall I went for it and the area was amazing, insane scenery and abundant wildlife. The colors were a little behind and the weather…well sucked, but I still managed to get some good images.

I have some submissions and prints orders to fill and then I will get a full trip report up on the blog ASAP.

Thanks for following along!

Carl