Trip to Alaska 2010. By: Haim Ziv

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Alaska - a vast land - in the Eskimo language,

was always on my mind, somewhere in a drawer of aims still to be achieved.

It was only in the beginning of 2010 that it became possible.

I was going to Alaska no matter what! I flew into Anchorage, Alaska

at the end of July where I could both photograph what I have been picturing in my mind's eye,

and what I have seen on National Geographic for a long time.

 

 

Many people raised a brow upon hearing my plans. My close friends have always considered me somewhat crazy and now with my decision to go to a God forsaken place in Alaska, it became certified. Some of the readers of this column might ask themselves why God Forsaken? Well I went to a place open to visitors only during the summer months - from the middle of May until the middle of September. Towards the end of September the hosts and property owners fold their equipment, pack and close up the place until the next season. The winter weather is very cruel in this area and life is practically impossible there. I asked to see how the place looked in winter and the owner showed me a picture that he had taken at the beginning of October, a few hours before embarking on the small boat sailing to Anchorage. The snow reached about 4 meters height and only the roofs of the lodge were barely seen, and this was only the beginning of winter!

 

I went to Alaska for two reasons that have haunted me for a very long time. First, to photograph bears standing on the river incline tohunt the salmon that arrive every year to lay eggs for their next generation. Second, to photograph the arctic parrot, the Puffin.

 

 

I underwent 36 very exhausting hours before I descended the plane's ramp in Anchorage. The weather that welcomed me was a thin and incessant rain accompanied by wind that caused the effect of whipping on one's face with sharp pins. I left Israel with the unreasonable temperature of 37C = 98F and humidity that drove everyone to rush and find solace under any available air conditioner.

After a night's rest in Anchorage, we flew in a small Piper plane towards the south west along the west bank of Cook Inlet. The main drawback of such a flight is the weight! It is restricted to a quota of 300 pounds, which is equivalent to 136 Kg including body weight, and it forces you to choose carefully the contents of your luggage. Anchorage - the city of all international flights, has an incredible number of light planes and 4*4 vehicles, it is only when one gets up to the height of about 300 meters in the air that one can see the endless number of light planes and one immediately understands that actually this is the most convenient and comfortable means of transportation in this area. There is simply no other way to reach most of the places in Alaska. Sailing in small boats takes much longer not to mention the weather that changes instantly for the worst (a fact that is especially noticed in sea). After a flight of one hour and a quarter we arrived at Silver Salmon Creek and reached the complex owned by a local family. Reservations should be made about six months sometimes even a year ahead. Most of the visitors are fishermen with fishing rods. There are strict restrictions regarding fishing in the area and it is prohibited to catch more than two salmon and one halibut per day (rules are changing from time to time).

 

 

The Villa in Silver Salmon Creek consists of a main complex with two floors. The second floor serves as a kitchen and dinning room for 16 people. Surrounding this villa are small villas equipped with anything to render life comfortable for a whole week. In the dining room there is a big library and a burning fireplace, operated with wood shreds. I had a nice room on the first floor with a shower and toilets. My internet pal was located on the second floor. The lobby to the house is a central place where wet and muddy boots as well as wet storm clothes are taken off. Some clothes were given to us by the hosts. The visitors enter the house wearing only the clothes they need and are welcomed by the pleasant heat of the burning fireplace.

The landing for the Silver Salmon Creek area is on the beach. There are no landing strips, no duty free stores; as a matter of fact there are no stores at all and no roads. From the air, one can already see an endless vast piece of land, soaked with water; the green color is dominant almost everywhere rendered by the snow melting from the high mountains. This arouses thoughts of jealousy in one's head, thinking of the drought that we have in our country. After being extricated from the small and crowded plane, we were met by a cart tied to an ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle). This would be the only means of transportation during the week we spent here and even that could not take us everywhere, which meant that occasionally we had to walk carrying on our backs the photography equipment that weighed 12 kg all the while wearing our heavy storm suits. It reminded me the long journeys carrying stretchers and heavy equipment during my military service.

 

 

 

The storm suit consists of high boots that the American fishermen use while standing with rods in the water. The equipment also includes its own suit. For me the worst part was the cumbersome clothes; the storm suit and the gloves protecting the hands from the cold weather and the wind. It is in these situations that one appreciates dry weather without rain that wets one's hands. It is only in such weather of blowing wind that drops the temperature to about 2C = 35F that one understands how nice and enjoyable it is to travel in our dry country with light clothes and not having to worry about getting your equipment wet or falling with it into the muddy land or puddles.

 

 

One day, out of the seven days, we set out dressed and protected from top to bottom as usual, however, after three hours in the open air the temperature started to rise and we felt as if our bodies were burning from internal and external heat, and all we wished for was to peel off the totally sealed suit under which we wore a thermal vest, fleece jackets and any other clothing necessary for protection against the cold weather. The days in Alaska are exceptionally long. During summer nights, it is never really dark, nights are rather grey. There were a few times when we finished supper at half past eight and went out for an additional round of photography. We returned to the Villa at about ten thirty and went to sleep while there was still light outside. The next morning begins at about four o'clock.

 

 

The land is very muddy and smells of sulfur, an evidence to volcanic activity. Around us, there were millions of mosquitoes humming and attacking despite the cold weather, a very surprising phenomenon. But, luckily I was equipped with an ointment to prevent mosquito bites thanks to warnings I received before traveling to Alaska. One day we sailed in a small boat to a magic island - a paradise of birds. There I saw for the first time in my life the sea parrot - the PUFFIN. The puffin is a charming, beautiful bird with webbing duck legs and a strange and unique beak. The sea parrots live in couples on rock cliffs. From time to time, they "dive" hovering continuously by pushing their little wings vigorously towards the sea. A short dive in the water and they surface with a few small fish in their mouth, and it seems to the observer as if they have suddenly grown a mustache. The sea parrot can also be found on the islands of the North Atlantic Ocean, however, a close observation in the minute details shows that the birds differ from one another in that the Arctic parrot is much more fascinating and beautiful, (not only in my opinion.).

 

The second item that was the cause for which I set out to Alaska, proved to be a total failure for me. It seems that something is happening to the global ecology, something connected to birds' and animals' behavior wherever they are. I have seen similar phenomena of faulty behavior regarding time schedule of birds' migration over our small country and also in Africa, where I have visited 6 times during the last five years. To my deep regret, in Alaska, salmon did not come to reproduce their next generation on the river incline. The Grizzly bear who wakes up towards the summer after a long winter sleep and sets out to the wide open space to look for food rich with carbohydrates, necessary for storing fats in his body for the winter, had to resign himself to eating green grass that grows here abundantly. With no fish available the bear goes down about a kilometer off the regular shore that is created each and every day at about 2 o'clock, and takes advantage of the huge noon tide, digs with his claws in the hard sea sand and occasionally succeeds to pull out oysters, disassemble them and eat the inside that is so vital for him.

 

The variety of all my experiences in Alaska was lacking and incomplete. The salmon came to the river incline towards the end of August; this is what I found out from the information exchange with people I met in the Villa where I stayed. Prices of driving and lodging in a Villa like the one in which I stayed are high in Alaska. If I had the financial means I would have hired a light plane and moved to different points in Alaska until I could see bears catching salmon. On second thought, even with unlimited financial means, it would have been very difficult since in Alaska one has to reserve accommodation six months ahead of time.

 

I returned with pictures of sea parrots, bears, and bear cubs. General summary: (It's a shame,) however, from my experience as a photographer I know for sure that in nature photography nothing is sure and one has to be grateful and welcome everything that one meets on the way.

 

Photography equipment I took with me to the trip:

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV.

Canon EOS-1D Mark II.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM.

Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS USM

I also carried with me a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head and flash (which I did not use). A week after I returned, a small Piper plane crashed on a mountain slope just about 100 Km from the place where I stayed, due to stormy weather; the people on board were killed, among them was Senator Ted Stevens after whom the Anchorage International airport is named.

 

Thank you for finding interest to read the article.

I would like to thank: Hedva Milo from: Weizmann Institute of Science 

and to Debbie Muga from Gainesville Florida, USA.

and to: Robert Amoruso  from Orlando Florida, USA.

If you like to write a comment please press: Contact Me 

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